Dec 15, 2013

Megyn Kelly and the Shogun Santa

"This is simply outrageous," Megyn Kelly muttered to herself as saw the Facebook picture of Shogun Santa. She composed herself just enough to down the last bits of Coors beer left in the glass without choking, but the calm proved to be very short-lived. "Who does he think he is? I mean, Santa was a descendant of Jesus Christ, who was obviously a blond-haired, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon who spoke English, just like me."

Megyn's voice gradually picked up an air of fury and violence. Her co-workers could sense her rage starting to boil over. "I mean, seriously! What is his deal here? How can some short, stump Asian guy pretend to be Santa when people who look like him don't even speak our language? It's so insulting to Santa, and to Jesus too! What gives them the right to do that? Do they not know what this means for our kids, our country?"

Tears began welling up around Megyn's eyes. Her face gradually turned beet red, like Shogun Santa's after a couple shots of shochu. "This is what's wrong with America today! I mean, everyone knows that Santa was a white man, as was Jesus. Everyone who's ever watched a Christmas movie knows that! But now we're letting these other people dress and act like Santa? And Jesus? Is this really what our country has become?"

The last word came roaring out of her mouth, forcing her colleagues to take shelter under their desks. The beer glass fell to the floor, shattering into dozens of pieces upon impact -- a fitting metaphor for Megyn's fragile state of mind. "So this is what they want, huh? This is what they want?" she whispered to herself, her hands firmly pressed against the news desk. "If it's a war on Christmas they want... it's a war on Christmas they'll get!"

(Image credit to Rodney Kageyama)

Nov 29, 2013

Thanksgiving, Walmart, and #SocietalDecline

5 pm on Thanksgiving Day: "We are eternally grateful for all that we have."
Three hours later: "Timmy are you ready?? We have to get to Target before it's too late!!!"

8pm tonight: "I'm so so very thankful for everything. What more could I ask for in life??
All day tomorrow: (cranks out a two-page long Christmas wish list on their newest iPhone before posting it on Instagram)

How am I meant to take Thanksgiving seriously when Black Friday (which is apparently Black Thursday now) has become an inextricable part of the pageantry of this day? When we have scenes like these popping up all across our country, mere hours after we got done talking about how blessed we are?

#Walmartfights is a trending topic on Twitter right now. What's that tell you?

Thanksgiving brings out the worst in people unlike any other American holiday. It draws out the greed and duplicity of those who go all-out to "celebrate" it, and puts them on display for all the world to see, like a cheap and outdated washer at Best Buy. The speed with which they can go from gratitude to gluttony is nothing short of awe-inspiring, though certainly not admirable in any way.

In the end, Thanksgiving is just an opportunity to eat a turkey (or any bird of choice), shoot the shit with your family and friends, and possibly huddle around a TV set to watch whatever football game is on. This, in itself, is not at all a bad thing, and could conceivably become a weekly or monthly ritual among a particularly close-knit group of people.

But a once-a-year event under the guise of showing "gratitude" for what we have, when so many of are hoping to find satisfaction -- if not salvation -- in mindless materialism, whether through the shopping extravaganza on that same night, or when we open our presents on Christmas Day?

Nov 2, 2013

Why the Orlando Magic need Austin Rivers

The Orlando Magic will be bad this season. As in, really bad. As in, "possibly finish with the worst record in the league for second straight year" bad.

The morale among basketball fans in the City Beautiful has never been lower ahead of the home opener tonight against the New Orleans Hornets Pelicans. This will be one of the few games all year which will be played in front of a sellout crowd. Most of the fans who will flock to the Amway Center tonight's game, not to mention those watching at home, will tune out on the team as soon as the final buzzer sounds.

This is a dreadful state of the Magic and their fans, as the team moves into the second year of its painful rebuilding process. There are no expectations for this team, no buzz, no reason at all to get excited about this year's team.

Ironically, the one man who can reconnect the basketball fans in Orlando to their home team will be in the arena tonight, sitting on the Pelicans bench.

* * *
Austin Rivers is a revered figure in Florida basketball folklore, arguably the best athlete this state has ever produced. He carried Winter Park HS to two state championships, earning the same mythical status as Tim Tebow, his football counterpart. With each win, his recruiting stock rose, and his legend grew exponentially. When he won his first state title, then his second, he sealed his place in Florida history for all eternity.

He proceeded to take his talents to Durham, NC, joining Coach K's basketball machine on the campus of Duke University, deep in the heart of ACC territory. Baby Doc dominated from the get-go, not skipping a single beat as he torched the best college basketball league in America. Without a shadow of a doubt, his finest moment as a Blue Devil was his game-winning shot against their deadly rivals North Carolina, as he calmly sank a three-pointer in enemy territory to hand his team a famous, dramatic victory:

At that moment, he didn't just write his own name into the Duke basketball folklore. He also put Winter Park, Florida on the map. No longer was WP just a glitzy suburban town outside of Orlando... no, it was now a place that gave birth to Austin River's prodigious talents.

* * *
So, in the context of his meteoric rise to the top of amateur basketball, and his subsequent struggles during his rookie year with the Hornets Pelicans, it makes all the sense in the world for the Orlando Magic to work a trade that would bring our hometown hero back to the city where he first made his name. One would have to strain and contort themselves in a position not found in the game of Twister in order to find the slightest drawback of bringing Austin Rivers back to Central Florida.

Anybody who has watched Austin Rivers in high school and college would tell you that he is a player who inspires confidence, who works harder at his craft than most. Most importantly, one only needs to look to his two state championships and his game-winner against UNC to realize that all this man does is win basketball games. Everyone realizes that the Magic have set their team up to lose as many games as humanly possible, but they are risking the possibility of alienating their remaining fanbase by engaging in such tankitude.

Losing begets losing fans, particularly in a fair-weather and transient sports town like Orlando. The fans will only support a losing team to the extent that the product on the court is still at least marginally watchable; at this point, anybody who says this current Magic squad fits that description ought to be lobotomized, Randle McMurphy-style. Having a local basketball deity like Rivers on the roster, however, would make for an infinitely more entertaining show on the Amway Center floor, at a bare minimum.

Just imagine the scene... Rivers with the ball in his hand, down one with a few seconds remaining, in a tight game against the hated Miami Heat featuring the archvillain of basketball, LeBron James... picture him going mano a mano against LeBron, peering directly above his receding dome at the shot clock, assessing the situation... and then, with only a nanosecond left on the game clock, hoisting a shot just inches over the reigning MVP's hands, the ball gliding into the air and rotating ever-so gracefully as the horn sounds...

...and then witness that shot splash into the net. The hometown hero comes back to Orlando, and promptly beats the Magic's most hated rivals in the most dramatic way possible. Just visualize that scenario for a second. This wouldn't just be a win for the Magic. It would be nothing short of a spiritual reawakening for all of Orlando, not just basketball fans.

The Orlando sports scene has never before been presented with such a blatantly obvious win-win situation. There is only so much that the Magic's current roster can do to lift the organization, its fans, and indeed, the entire city, out of its doldrums. There is only one man who can do exactly that, and then some.

Do the right thing, Rob Hennigan. Do Orlando right, Magic. Bring Austin Rivers home, where he belongs.

Oct 17, 2013

The Suburbs

Every Sunday, my friends and I engage in a ritual of going to a nearby sports bar called the Friendly Confines and catching the late afternoon NFL games (it's far too crowded for the early kickoffs, as we found out on opening day last year). Normally, we would make our way to any of the tables that have been left behind by the 1pm crowd, and act as if we own that section of the establishment, as we lay our eyes on any of the TV's over our heads. This is where we not only watch all the games unfold on the big screens, but also catch up on the week that was, and shoot jokes around left and right.

Those plans were put on hold this past weekend.

Between those friends having to be elsewhere at that time, and the Jaguars game against the Broncos being a late kickoff  and the Jags looking for all the world like they were on their way to being blown out again  I decided I wanted no part of the Confines that day. On the other hand, the alternative was to sit through the rest of this Jags game at home, which didn't seem any more appealing at the time.

So what did I do instead? Turn off the TV and turn on my car's engine, of course.

(Naturally, the rest of that clash in Denver ended up being a reasonably entertaining one. We even came within a two-point conversion of tying it at halftime! Just my luck that I would miss out on it.)

* * *
I've been building up a sizable album of pictures taken in and around Orlando since the start of the year. I like to refer to it as a very informal tour pamphlet of the area, a look at places that people who fly into OIA usually don't know exist. It's a collection of images featuring skyscrapers, churches, shops and pubs, parks and lakes, unique spots around town, and lately, abandoned buildings.

Orlando, like every other city in America, was hit hard by the Great Recession. It left scores of homes and stores empty, as its occupants were forced to desert their properties and shutter their businesses. Larger-scale developments weren't spared either; I chronicled this earlier in a post about the Fashion Square Mall, but there are also apartments and condos that transform into hulking masses of darkness when the sun goes down.

As I headed up Aloma Avenue, past Trinity Prep and headlong into the farthest reaches of Seminole County, I found that these abandoned buildings were not exclusively an inner-city phenomenon, but were increasingly common in the outer suburbs  including these two, right next to each other:


At one point in that church's history, it must have served as the center of its small, formerly isolated community; today, it's little more than a largely forgotten, yet still-standing piece of Central Florida's past, surrounded on all sides by new subdivisions, office buildings, and storage facilities. It's also a cruel, but poignant reminder that sprawl will always triumph over serenity in this day and age, that your own little pride of place can always become overwhelmed, no matter far from the heart of the city it may be.

* * *
Travel further up the road, away from the strawberry farms and opulent church complexes, and you'll find a massive shopping center pop up seemingly out of nowhere. Oviedo Mall lies a short hop over the Greeneway, totally enveloped by a tall, thick mass of trees. It's a prototypical suburban shopping mall, with an expansive parking lot that looks out into the skies above, and not much else.

I got there too late to walk around the shops and stalls; only the movie theater and a handful of eateries were open by the time I stepped foot inside. I was starving for food at the time, but not to the point where I actually found no-name BBQ joints appetizing. Luckily enough, there was a horde of food trucks lined up in one section of the parking lot  they apparently gather there every Sunday  and I discovered a wad of cash, which I left inside the car but had completely forgotten about, that I could use to order something. I decided on a seafood truck, where I got myself a pair of spicy shrimp tacos (note: I'm a sucker for crustaceans). My humble opinion on the tacos? I couldn't give it enough stars.

As I was gorging down on my impromptu dinner, a live music performance was just getting under way. A young-looking girl with a guitar, a fine voice, a set of songs she wrote on her own, doing her thing in front of an audience that gradually warmed to her as she went through her set list. She was reminiscent of a young Taylor Swift: a singer-guitarist with a country-pop streak to her, without the songs about her laundry list of boyfriends and love affairs. Obviously, it's too early to tell whether she'll one day reach that level of stardom herself; there are precocious musical talents like her all around this grand old land of ours. But on this day, she was the headliner, the main attraction at the show.

The sun was well on its way to receding into the night by the time she finished the first part of her set. I decided to leave then, and attempted to catch the last of the suburban landscape on that corner of Seminole County before they faded into black. I meandered through some tree-lined roads that were flanked by a slew of run of the mill subdivisions on both sides, for what felt like ages. Almost all of them had a bland, highly unimaginative names to match: animal-themed names that could be found anywhere; places called the Shores or the Isles, when Seminole County is situated well away from the coastline; and still more neighborhoods that the developers must have christened after throwing some darts at a map of Europe.

* * *
I spent most of my formative years, both in Japan and in America, in an urban setting. More specifically, I spent them in what could be best described as the inner suburbs: not within the borders of a major city, but close enough to it that I could enjoy its bright lights from time to time. Most of my friends also grew up within reach of the city, which meant I rarely had to venture out into the outer suburbs and beyond. To this day, most of my impressions of the life in the outskirts have come from a famous music video by the Smashing Pumpkins.

Having journeyed out to more of these types of places in recent years  in Orlando and elsewhere  I've found that the suburban life doesn't particularly appeal to me. Not just because I'm a city kid at heart, and prefer everything to be close to where I live; but also because the subdivisions themselves give off a strange aura. It's not so much the cookie-cutter houses that dominate the terrains of these manufactured neighborhoods, as much as it's the isolated nature of the terrains itself. It's as if each community, gated or otherwise, is its own walled city, cordoned off from from the rest of the world, its residents rarely coming in contact with their neighbors, let alone their fellow suburban dwellers outside their oversized shell.

I'm not sure if I could ever live in an area with that kind of vibe, even if I ever find myself with enough money to buy my own McMansion. I think I'll always be more drawn to the lure of the city, and the easier access to all the attractions and amenities on offer (not to mention an easier commute). Of course, there will be millions of people who will have an opposite opinion, and think it impossible to manage a living in an urban context; they'll naturally find life in the suburbs a much more favorable condition. Is there a chance I could become one of them someday? Certainly, but barring a drastic change in my outlook, that's an unlikely prospect.

But that's another topic for another day. Debating the pros and cons of living in the city versus the suburbs is pointless and futile when I don't even know where I'll be living by this time next year. At any rate, I'm still years from being ready to settle into my own home and making an honest attempt at paying my mortgage every month. On Sunday evening, I had rather more immediate concerns; namely, getting back home, and getting ready for another workweek.

Sunset gave way to nightfall. Traffic lights glimmered in the distance. Winding suburban streets transitioned into four-lane county roads, then guided me back to the major thoroughfares. I traveled west, then shifted southbound, and finally crossed from Seminole to Orange County. Soon I would find myself from whence I came, closer to my favorite bars and shops, miles removed from the sheltered confines of the outskirts.

Sep 20, 2013

"The City Beautiful"

The city of Orlando announced last month that it will spend nearly $100 million on the construction of sports venues, opera houses, and convention centers within its borders. Evidently, the nearly $1 billion that the city already sunk into building those venues (plus the Amway Center) wasn't enough for the city officials, and the big business interests -- folks who really run this area -- who back them.

As for the rest of Orlando? The power brokers in town have shown time and again that they care more about people who visit the area for days and weeks at a time, and the money men who make a killing off them, rather than the millions of people who actually live here. That sort of brazen disregard for the residents, in turn, makes us believe that we don't really deserve any better, which makes it easier for the likes of Buddy Dyer and Teresa Jacobs to do as they please.

For comparison's sake, look at towns like, say, Chicago or Seattle. People there actually take pride in the places they call home. They make an honest attempt at making their city a better place to live. Whereas in Orlando, civic engagement often means little more than tweeting and writing e-mails to city/county commissioners, in the vain hope that they might read our messages, much less consider the ideas we've laid out for them. On the rare occasion when people here are roused into "action," it's for the purpose of defending the status quo of how the city is run (i.e. Orlando City owners and fans asking for public money to be used toward a new stadium).

We seldom protest or mount an organized opposition against boondoggles such as the Citrus Bowl and the performing arts center, let alone agitate for changes to the existing tourist tax policies, because the powers-that-be, with the assist from moneyed interests, have fast-tracked and pushed through so many of these luxury projects over the years that we simply retreat and accept our fate before we find the courage to actually raise our voices.

Far from fighting to make this city a place worth calling home -- particularly for those who are forced to find "shelter" on the public park benches and in the shadows of skyscrapers -- we remain content with allowing the last bits of soul and character left in this town to be sold off for trinkets. For all the platitudes about how Orlando is "The City Beautiful" and how we all "live where you vacation," our pride of place doesn't extend much farther than our front doors and backyards.

A city where the wants of its temporary visitors take precedence over the needs of its residents; where corporate welfare has become the new normal; whose future has been sold down the river to the recipients of said corporate welfare, who are inexplicably portrayed as being "benefactors" to the region; where asking questions about the sanity of the city's policy decisions, much less the motives behind them, gets you branded as a raving lunatic, instead of a concerned citizen... a city with those characteristics, built on those flimsy, defective foundations, is bound to collapse in a spectacular fashion, like trees and houses into gigantic sinkholes.

Is that the future of Orlando?

Jul 13, 2013

Zimmerman trial and Asiana Flight 214

On the same week that America engaged in a fierce debate over the role of race in the Trayvon Martin incident...

...we also saw no less than two media outlets make industrial-strength dumb editorial errors regarding the Asiana crash...

...with the latter incident (apparently involving a summer intern at NSTB) actually being received to laughter and applause on the social media and at major publications.

Racial jokes and comments that would be received with a torrent of complaints and demands for apologies from both sides of the Zimmerman debate somehow find their expression and humor when applied to groups outwith their narrow scope of discussion.

The challenges and conflicts associated with the black-versus-white narrative of American race relations are often dismissed (or worse, laughed off, as in the case of Flight 214) when placed in the context of other interracial, or even intra-racial, dynamics.

This is "post-racial" America, in a nutshell.

Jun 26, 2013

In defense of Eurosnobs

Fluminense vs Orlando City friendly

In the coming months, major European and South American clubs will arrive on American soil to play preseason friendlies against each other, as well as against American teams. Most of them will be playing in front of crowds much larger than could be found at a typical MLS clash. You'll be hard-pressed to find empty seats at friendlies involving, say, Man United and Barcelona, even at NFL stadiums which will likely be playing hosts to them.

Most soccer fans in America will be happy to see these teams arrive on these shores, if only for the summer. It means a great deal to see their heroes in action, they say; plus, these friendlies have the added benefit of raising the Beautiful Game's profile in a country where it hasn't completely been accepted as a part of its sports fabric yet.

On the other hand, there's a very vocal portion of soccer fans in America who claim that these high-profile matches do more harm than good to the MLS, as they drive potential supporters toward European powerhouses, rather than help local sides in their efforts to develop a proper fanbase.

They further decry the fact that European competitions -- namely the Champions League, EPL, and La Liga -- get far more press in America than their own national league, and reserve special scorn for the fans who gravitate toward the aforementioned major Euro clubs... the Barcelona's, the Man United's, the Real Madrid's, and the Chelsea's of the soccer world.

Oh, those glory-hunting fans. Eurosnobs, their detractors call them. Thumbing their nose at American soccer while rooting for teams on the other side of the ocean. Refusing to support the local team while jumping of the bandwagons of British and Spanish teams. Showing no love whatsoever for the game within their own country.

For that latter group, mostly consisting of MLS die hards, the support for the league, and support for American soccer in general, seems to be a black-and-white issue. Either you deck yourself out from head to toe in Sounders or Red Bulls gear, or you take the easy route of rooting for Real Madrid. As with any sport, there appears to be very little middle ground for the hardcore types, as if the casual fans can't have it both ways.

They might present their arguments as a passionate defense of their clubs, their league, their game. They might even posit that we have an obligation to support our local and national teams; that investing our emotions, not to mention disposable income, toward a European team is akin to selling out our community, the American game at large, and even America itself.

I would counter that car companies like Ford apply that exact same logic to guilt-trip people into buying their vehicles. Their viewpoint doesn't take into account the inherent hypocrisy of allowing us the freedom to do whatever we like with our money, yet throwing us into the fire when we choose to invest in a foreign product. What percentage of the fans who look down on the "Eurosnobs" drive a used BMW to get to and from work, let alone attend their teams' matches?

Americans demand maximum value for their entertainment dollars, whether it's a movie, a concert, a play, an art exhibit, or a date. Why should sports be any different? Why should soccer be any different?

Sports fans in America have always gravitated toward leagues that offer the highest level of competition. NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL are universally regarded as the best leagues in the world in their sports, and thus have a monopoly over the pro landscape in America, as well as leeway to expand its fanbase overseas (see NFL's marketing efforts in the UK). Major League Soccer, for all its growth since its inception, is not even close to being in a position to do something similar.

However, major European leagues, led by the EPL and La Liga, are perfectly poised to capitalize on a worldwide audience. Ditto international competitions like the Champions League and the European Championships. Furthermore, other domestic leagues such as Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, and even the SPL are also gaining a burgeoning audience in America, helped in part by smaller channels like GolTV and beIn.

Major networks like ABC, Fox, and most recently, NBC, have all realized this, which is why they've bought broadcasting rights to those competitions. None of these networks are guilty of snubbing the domestic league, or abandoning the game back home. If they are guilty of anything, it is of knowing where the ratings are, and aggressively pursuing new viewers.

MLS will undoubtedly continue its upward climb in the coming years, with increased investment in the game, rising quality of play, and higher levels of respect for the league among soccer fans around the world -- including those here in the States. Over time, American fans who prefer the European scene over the domestic arena could make the migration toward their local teams; at the very least, they will be rooting for clubs on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the present, however, American soccer, at all levels, will be seen as an acquired taste, in the same way that soccer itself was seen as an acquired taste by most Americans in years past. The so-called Eurosnobs will be among the people who will need convincing: not only to switch allegiances, or simply adopt their local teams, but to simply support the American game itself.

Name-calling and guilt-tripping won't accomplish that.

Highlighting all the positives that the domestic game has to offer instead, however, just might do the trick.

Jun 15, 2013

Reactions in Florida after the Tebow signing

So obviously, New England's signing of Tim Tebow has generated considerable buzz across our great country, but nowhere is the excitement quite palpable as it is in Florida. Given his immense, intense following in the Sunshine State -- only rivaled, arguably, by the North Koreans' dedication to their Dear Leaders -- it is quite natural that this news would be greeted with an outpouring of joy, tears, and overwhelming support here.

To give you an idea of how excited the inhabitants of this great state are about the Patriots' salvation of Tebow's NFL career, here is a small sampling of tweets, Facebook posts, interview quotes, and plain-old word of mouth that followed the announcement on Tuesday:

"I've never heard of this Bellachuck feller, but I know he's a damn smart man."
 - a seafood restaurant waiter in Panama City Beach

"He's obviously coming to replace Tom Brady as the Patriots quarterback. Why else would Belichick bring him in? Do y'all really not see this?"
- a car mechanic in Ocala

"So what Brady has won Super Bowls? Timmy beat the Steelers in the playoffs!!!"
- a high school cafeteria worker in Daytona Beach

"Look, Tebow is undefeated in the playoffs. Can you the same about Brady? No sir!" 
- mail room clerk in Orlando

"Tebow ate Arkansas for lunch when he was with the Gators. Why can't he do the same in the pros?"
- a supermarket cashier in Lakeland, on a potential quarterback competition with Ryan Mallett

"The Patriots have truly lived up to their name by signing Tim Tebow!!"
- a convenience store clerk in Dade City

"I really don't understand why horrible quarterbacks like Ponder, Manuel, and Grossman can get chance after chance after chance in the NFL, but a great player like Tim Tebow can't get a proper one himself."
- divorce lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, when asked if Tebow could still be a quarterback

"Tebow would have won multiple Super Bowls by now if someone gave him a chance. Did people not see what he did in college???" 
- part-time line cook at a Sarasota diner

"Isn't it amazing that we know a lot more about football than these NFL execs? It's so dumb how they can't see that Tebow is the best player in the league!" 
- bail bondsman in Pensacola

"Pawwwwl, does Tebow signing with the Patriots mean America is gonna go back to being great again?"
- forklift driver in Lake City, at approximately 4pm on Tuesday

"Tebow can sit back, learn, and eventually become the next Steve Young once Brady retires." 
- a McDonald's manager in Alachua County

"Turning a godless city like Boston into his own personal heaven will be Tebow's greatest feat to date." 

- a retired car parts supervisor in Wesley Chapel

"When Tebow is starting at QB in Week 3, it will be a biggest sign that he is indeed the living Jesus." 

- Walmart greeter in Jacksonville

Suffice to say, Tebowmania is still very much alive here in God's Waiting Room.

May 17, 2013

Sayonara to a legend: David Beckham

I was in Japan during the 2002 World Cup. I distinctly remember the entire country, and everybody who was there at the time, collectively losing their mind for an entire month, as they basked in the euphoria of (co)-hosting the premier sports event on the planet, and lived and died by the exploits of their home team.

The Japanese also became utterly infatuated with one foreign player in particular: David Beckham. A wildly popular figure even before the World Cup, the appetite for Beckhamania became insatiable within seconds of him walking out of the airplane carrying the England squad. There was a palpable excitement about his presence on Japanese soil: His face dominated the magazine stalls. People everywhere copied his faux-hawk hairstyle. Girls swooned and fainted simply from watching him on TV. There was simply no exaggerating the spell that Becks cast over the nation.

Not surprisingly, the England-Argentina clash was the most anticipated group stage match that didn't involve Japan's national team. Beckham himself had infamously been sent off against the same opponent at the last World Cup, a fact that was endlessly repeated in the build-up to the kickoff. As luck would have it, the game was being broadcast live on the big screen next to the central station of my hometown. There was already a massive crowd on hand by the time my family and I got there; it would still build more before the teams took to the pitch.

Becks had come into the match looking for a chance to redeem himself; he would duly get his opportunity late in the first half, when Michael Owen won a penalty for England. This drew a huge ovation from the mostly pro-England crowd; the applause, however, gave way to a somewhat nervous silence, as he stood over the dead ball and began to eye his intended target.

Then, as they say, it happened.

One emphatic kick of the ball into back of the Argentine net sparked scenes of sheer pandemonium in the pubs, clubs, and town squares of England. And absolute delirium in the stands of Sapporo Dome. And total bedlam in the viewing section in my hometown in Kitakyushu.

The penalty would stand up as the only goal of the match, as England defeated their bitter rivals to inch closer to the knockout stage, and their captain vanquished his personal nightmare against the very team that caused it four years prior.

I had witnessed Beckhamania at its absolute peak.

I was still an impressionable teenager back then, vacationing in my hometown; but at that moment, I became a huge Becks fan. I've followed his career -- both club and country -- with interest since that day. I even tuned into the MLS on a semi-regular basis for the first time, after he made a shock move to the LA Galaxy in 2007.

Beckham's retirement shouldn't have come as a surprise, given his age and his list of accomplishments. He has had a glittering career, which he will close on a high note with a league winner's medal with Paris St-Germain. He undoubtedly has a second career waiting for him as an ambassador of the game. Becks has sealed his legacy, both on and off the pitch.

Yet, his announcement has me flashing back to June 2002, to that moment against Argentina. That World Cup had left me with an indelible love for the game. Becks had a massive role in helping me develop that love. Put simply, I haven't known football without David Beckham in it. My next reflection of Beckhamania will certainly be a little more nostalgic than this one.

Apr 15, 2013

American obesity

The doom-and-gloom merchants who claim that America is losing its way could not be any more inaccurate in their assessment. Obesity is every bit as American as football, apple pies, megachurches, and Ford trucks. The fact that the number of the obese in the United States is rising does not represent a cause of concern; rather, it is irrefutable evidence that Americans still hold dear the cultural and societal values that make our country so great and unique.

(Photo credit to The Atlantic )

Apr 1, 2013

The fall of Fashion Square

I was introduced to the American mall about a week after my arrival in Orlando as a nine-year old. My family had taken up residence at a family friend's house, and were in need of some furniture before moving houses again after the summer; I also needed some clothes for my first year of school in America. The friend set up a trip to the Fashion Square Mall, as it was the closest one to our temporary place of living (and remained so after we moved into our new home).

I recognized the contrasts between retail centers the U.S. and Japan almost immediately. Department stores in the States occupied, and still occupy, a vastly different type of space than back in Japan: propped up away from the city center, built fairly low to the ground, with acres of walking space, and dozens of stalls selling everything from calendars to electronics to baseball caps to license plate accessories. On the other hand, I also saw hundreds of shoppers milling around FSM that day, walking from one store to another, many with their own kids in tow. It was the same kind of bustle that I was used to seeing in the department stores back home.

That was in the summer of 1996. My family made numerous trips back to Fashion Square in the years that followed, whether the purpose was to get new appliances, new clothes, new prescriptions for our glasses (the byproduct of hitting the books hard when studying English), and seeing the odd film after a theater opened up  in the complex. Then, for whatever reason, we stopped visiting the place as much.

If my own trips there are any indication, it appears most people in Orlando have done the same. Whereas FSM was a veritable hornet's next of activity during the rest of my childhood and adolescence, the buzz within the complex has since been gradually sucked out by an atmosphere vacuum. Shuttered shops and abandoned booths dot the space between the anchor stores, which themselves have become increasingly desolate. There are tables at food court that look like they have gone untouched for weeks. Even the workers at the movie theaters, and at the eateries on the outer fringes of the complex, seemed to be spending much of their time chatting to each other, or to friends that were passing through.

There are any number of reasons why malls like Fashion Square (and West Oaks, in the other side of town) are, for lack of a better phrase, going out of fashion -- the stagnant economy? The rise of online shopping? The Walmart-ification of consumer items? -- but they have become magnified at FSM, as the attendance continues to dwindle and the few shop owners that have moved into the open stalls struggle to keep their businesses afloat.

Revitalization, however, may soon be on the horizon. The complex was recently sold to a new developer for $35 million, and the new owners have laid out their vision for bringing the place, and its surroundings, back to life again. This new injection of funds may not prove to be the elixir for Fashion Square; nor is it guaranteed that the investments will even bring a decent return in the long-run. But it is a start, a necessary first step, for a mall that has been on a slow but noticeable decline.

Worst case scenario? It would buy more time before the place gets chronicled on this site.

Side entrance

A largely deserted walkway

Unoccupied stalls with the lights still on

Big advertising board...

...and the abandoned stores immediately to its right

More shuttered stores

(Permanently) closed food stands

Former jewelry store turned waiting room

Parking lot upstairs


Requiem for a cream


Clearance rack at Sears

Portrait of desolation

Former Japanese restaurant (and Chinese buffet), just outside the mall

Movie theater turned church

For-profit education

Pathway to nowhere

Mar 9, 2013

Who is this?

It's incredible that nobody is talking about this commercial, or the cute redhead in it:

It could the fact that the ad only lasts 15 seconds, or that Kohler isn't as big a brand as, say, Wendy's, but there are absolutely zero mentions of her anywhere on social media, which is quite stunning in this age.

We can at least try and put a name to her face, right?

(CC: FB's "official" redhead fanpage)

Feb 11, 2013

"There's nothing more fundamentally disruptive to the status quo than a new reality"

- Umair Haque