Tuesday, September 30, 2014

August 2014: The First Day of School and the Opening of Football Season

Forward:  Wow.  I am putting out my August letter at the end of September.  I cannot speak for any of the readers, but I am astonished at this.  I have been very good for ten plus years of getting the letter out in the month that it represents.
What are the reasons for this?  Clearly, it has been other priorities.  The reasons are tied to one of the two topics in this letter, the start of the school year,  and the AYF Olympics.
I started a new, full tima e, faculty position at North Park University.  I am teaching four courses, three of them for the first time which requires a lot of prep time.  It was easily my top priority.
The August letter might have been posted in the closing days of August:  Labor Day Weekend.  I certainly wrote a lot that weekend, but everything I wrote was about the AYF Olympics. I posted articles to the online edition summarizing every day of festivities from Thursday, August 28th to Tuesday, September 2nd.

 It was a lot of fun taking photos all weekend and reporting on the Olympics festivities.  I enjoyed the weekend even more reporting on it… but it left no time to write this letter.
Between the start of school and the AYF Olympics, I have not had the time to dedicate to getting this letter out.  Sometimes, priorities force trade-offs and, as the Clint Eastwood character said in Heartbreak Ridge, “we adapt, modify, and overcome.”  I did adapt and modify my schedule.  I am in the process of overcoming.   Part of this involves putting out the August and September letters within a few days.

The first day of school is a special time.  To me, from the day I started kindergarten until today when I am a professor, the first day of school is more like the beginning of a new year than any January 1 I have ever experienced.  The first day of school is more like the beginning of a new year than the first day of any fiscal year I have ever experienced.  The first day of school is important to many families.  I have to believe the importance I put on the first day of school has to put me in the top few percentile points in this regard.
I have to attribute and credit this to my mother and grandmother.  From as early as I can remember, my mother and grandmother emphasized the importance of an education.  In fact, the way they talked and encouraged me about school was more than just importance.  They made it more of a mission with almost religious overtones and undertones.  They would refer to my paternal grandfather and great uncle as examples I should aspire to.  This is not to mean this is all they talked about or emphasized. It was not.  They were not at all over the top but when they did talk about the value and importance of education, it was in this special way.
The other part of this equation is me.  My mother and grandmother emphasized more than education.   They advocated devotion to family and nation, humility, the golden rule, and sound money management to name a few.  These all resonated with me but all paled in comparison to education.  Education appealed to me.  It clearly was something innate.  So, the motivation was both intrinsic and extrinsic.  No wonder, the first day of school is such a special time for me.
The first day of school is like the first day of baseball season.  It is full of hope and unlimited potential.  As a kid on opening day, there was always great hope and possibility that the Detroit Tigers were going to win the pennant and World Series.  Similarly on the first day of school, there was no limit to what I would learn in English, history, and especially science.  It was all full of hope, potential, and magic.
These feelings were amplified by getting and organizing new school supplies.  Brand new, pristine, bright, and shiny binders, notebooks, pencils, pens, crayons, rulers, and loose leaf paper contributed significantly to the hope, potential, and magic of the school year that was about to start.  A notebook of blank pages combined with brand new pencils and pens.  It was possible that these pages might be filled with a world class novel or perhaps the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.  There was no limit to what I imagined was possible.
Of course, be the second week, school was much more like a job than it was a hopeful and magical thing.  By the second grade I realized the magicof the start of school would most certainly dissipate once the work load got into full swing.  Even with that knowledge, there was no way to stop that euphoria of the new beginning.  For that reason, it is exactly like the start of a new baseball season.

August 25:  It was the first day of school today.  It was the first day of school for my daughter Armene, a first grade teacher, as well.  She sent us a text and photo :  “1st day of school obligatory picture :)”  I have been getting first day of school photos from her from her first day of kindergarten.  They are more meaningful to me than most of her official class photos taken a few weeks after class started.  Armene used to be excited to take the first day of school photos pretty much through elementary school.  In middle school, high school, and college, I had to coax her to take the photo.  Being the great sport she is and knowing it meant a lot to me, she took cute, parody, photos.
She thought she was done when she graduated from college.  But, as she chose teaching as her profession, she still continued to have first days of school.  I thought it quite natural to continue asking for the photos.  “Really?” she said.  I didn’t say anything.  I must have had that “you’ll always be my little girl” look, so she complied that year and every year since without another word or look.  It is often the little things that contribute to the strongest bonds and fondest memories.
On Facebook today, one of my first and favorite North Park students, Lindsay Synek, posted the following:  “Today’s my last first day of school… Where did time go.”  I am not so sure Lindsay, don’t be so quick to say it is over.  Graduate school, teaching, and coaching may be in future… not to mention a puppy dog look from you Dad someday.
With one grandson born and another due in December, I can see this first day of school photo tradition continuing a long time and that would be very fine for me.

Football Season:  It was silly to equate the first day of school with opening day in baseball.  While it was a good analogy, I should have equated the first day of school with the beginning of college football… especially given that the beginning of the college football season was my second topic. 
With the first day of school comes another beginning full of hope and very high expectations:  the college football season begins.  Die-hard fans all over the country are quietly or quite openly expecting great things from their teams even if somewhere deep down they know they are rooting for a cellar dweller.  Until the first game is played, every time has the same record, and some chance of winning a conference or national championship. 
Michigan has not been a great era for Michigan Football.  They have not been the team the alumni and fan base have come to expect for the past few years.  Lloyd Carr was the head coach from 1995 through the 2007 season.  He had six seasons in which he won ten games or more.  His teams finished ranked in the AP top 20 every year except for 2005 when the team was 7-5.  Let us not forget that Lloyd Carr’s 1997 won the first National Championship in like fifty years.  In his final game, the 2008 Capital One Bowl, the Wolverines took it too Urban Meyers and the Florida Gators.  He retired or was urged to retire because he was on a losing streak against Jim Tressel and Ohio State and there was a general feeling that the modern no huddle spread offense game had passed the coach by. 
Michigan squares off against Appalachian State on Saturday August 30th for the first game of this season.  The last time Michigan played them was in the opener of the 2007 season which was Carr’s last season.  A good Appalachian State running a no huddle spread offense upset the Wolverines.  It was an embarrassing loss.  That loss did more to secure Carr’s departure and for the school to hire Rich Rodriguez who had made his name at West Virginia with exactly the kind of offense.
So, Michigan made a change first for Rich Rodriguez and then Brady Hoke.  It has not been for the better.  In the Rich Rod era, Michigan was 15-22.   We had two losing seasons which we were definitely not used to or prepared for.  We did not tolerate those years very well.  His three winning seasons were of seven and eight games.  His first two seasons, the losing seasons, sealed his fate.  We were looking for the second coming of Bo and he was not it. 
We thought Brady Hoke might be, especially when in his first season he went 11-2 which included a Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.  His next two seasons were more like Rich Rod’s last few years.  We were 8-6 in 2012 and 7-6 in 2013.  Rich Rod’s record improved every year.  Hoke’s has gotten worse.  An August 21, 2014 Sports Illustrated article stated the situation perfectly, “When you go 7-6 at Michigan, people just assume you are clueless.”  Hoke is clearly in the hot seat. 
Michigan opened up against Appalachian State on August 30.  This was only the second time these teams played each other.  The first time they played, Appalachian State shocked Michigan by beating us 34 – 32.  It set a horrible tone for the rest of Michigan’s season that year and definitely contributed to the retirement of Lloyd Carr.  This time Michigan routed them 52 – 14 racking up 560 yards of offense to their 280.
Clearly, there was great hope for a great Michigan Football season at the time this was written.  More to follow, for sure, in the September letter.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Tribute to John Berberian and Onnik Dinkjian

There is a dinner at an Armenian Church in New Jersey Saturday, September 27, 2014. It is a tribute dinner for two very special musicians: Onnik Dinkjian and John Berberian. It is organized by the Friends of Onnik and John; an organization created, no doubt, for the sole purpose of throwing this tribute and testimonial dinner. I would love to go and if I were still living in CT, I probably would be attending. As I live in Illinois, I will take prepare this blog to convey my admiration and best wishes. As the committee solicited comments from other musicians parts of this post might be read at the event.

John: From about the age of 14, I have been mesmerized with the "oud artistry" of John Berberian. I am not even sure if my admiration for John began after I decided to take up the oud or if my admiration for John led me to the oud. I think they were somehow simultaneous and independent events.

The John I was mesmerized with was the John of what are the best albums of American Armenian diaspora: Oud Artistry and Expressions East. I have wanted to play like John on those albums since I first started playing the oud. Those albums were to oud players of my generation like The Exciting Sounds, on which
John was the oud player, of Hachig Kazarian was to budding clarinet players of the same era. I wanted to play like John then and... I want to play like John now. He was haunting, vibrant, and so expressive on those albums which in my humble opinion were the pinnacle of the Armenian-American a la turca style. I have told John on many occasions that his Taksim that went into a chifte telli on Expressions East is the single best recording of an Armenian playing the oud I have ever heard.

I have always wanted to play like John. Who wouldn't? For all the years I have been practicing and playing, that is still my goal. I have had a good musical career myself but am still in awe and admiration of John. He is still the oud player I would love to be like.

Of all the times I have heard and been in awe of John's playing, one day stands out in my mind. We were having a summer gathering of Armenians at our Connecticut house. David Attarian was there and had brought an accordion. John had stopped by and brought a violin of which he is also quite skilled. The three of us had a little impromptu jam session that I wish we had recorded but it was before the days of smart phones. The music was old fashioned, sweet, and most definitely rooted in and reminiscent of that first generation of Armenians that survived the genocide and were trying to create new lives and families in this country.

Onnik: I have not known Onnik nor have I been a fan for as long as I have known and been a fan of John's. I have always admired Onnik's talent and skill but, honestly and no offense intended, his repertoire was not my cup of tea back in the day with the exception of Chifte Chifte on the House of the Seven Uncles. Apparently, I was more into Turkish music back then. Sure, I learned all of the songs Onnik popularized over the years. It was an absolute requirement as a working musician because singers in the groups I played with loved his songs and people regularly requested "that song Onnik sings."

I am not sure when I got to know Onnik personally. It was gradual and probably began in the 1980s but for sure in the 1990s. I had increasing opportunities to sit and talk with Onnik. Silly as this may sound, my admiration for Onnik, his artistry, and his repertoire grew ten fold from just getting to know him. Another factor was that as I aged I came to appreciate and like all styles of Armenian music. Not surprisingly, Onnik has become an absolute favorite of mine. What can I say... I am still learning.

As you may know, Onnik writes lyrics. My all time favorite line of his is in his song Karnan Dzaghig:
Sosi'in baruh yar djan, Hagopin heduh yar djan
      Polor ashkharuh yar djan, chigah numanuh yar djan yar yaro djan
Anyone that has ever seen Sosi and Hagop Kadian dance, like many of the attendees of the tribute dinner, knows that Onnik captured a perfect memory. He also captured something much more. In these few simple, yet profound lines, he expresses the magic that can exist between musician and dancers in this style of Armenian music we so love. This music and dance synergy moves our hearts and souls.

I saw Onnik just a few weeks ago at the AYF Olympics. We had a great conversation about Armenian life and music. I love his views and insights on things. I love his energy and zest for life in general and how he brings this onto the stage and into his performances.

Onnik is, as we used to say, the real deal.

John and Onnik: There is an article in the Armenian Weekly online about the friendship and musical partnership of John and Hachig Kazarian. That article might be directionally correct but the real partnership is between John and Onnik. John and Onnik, Onnik and John, they are an amazing partnership that is threefold in nature. Obviously, they are friends or no other kind of partnership could have lasted this long without deep friendship and admiration as a base. They are, most certainly, musical partners. The Tribute Dinner for which this piece is written, is to specifically celebrate and honor this musical partnership and all it has meant to so many of us.

But, let us not underestimate the other third and more subtle part of their partnership. They are business partners. To be at the pinnacle in the music, however large or small the market, requires talent and showmanship which John and Onnik have in great abundance. It also requires branding and some business savvy. There are countless examples of very talented Armenian musicians who lack this sense and no one knows or admires them they way John and Onnik are admired. Both Onnik and John have their own brands to be sure. They also have a very strong collective brand. In this case, one plus one is definitely greater than two. Onnik and John both stick to the brand they created when their partnership began even if they didn't consciously create the brand. They innately know their audience and what that audience wants. So, I am not speaking of business or branding in any cold or calculating sense. Onnik and John definitely have this sense and it stems from love for the music and the people that love the music.

I have seen them perform together at big dances and national events like the AYF Olympics. They are always good and everyone always enjoy them. The most enjoyable, however, I ever found them is when they play for their "home town" folks at the St. Vartanadz dinner dances in New Jersey. The music was wonderful but it had more of relaxed and comfortable feel there. Of course, that is where Sosi and Hagop used to dance...

Congratulations John and Onnik! You are national treasures and personal treasures to me.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Ash Trees Dying All Around

A common sight around here
Global trade is generally beneficial.  It affords us a wide variety of goods at reasonable prices.  Companies move their sourcing and manufacturing for productive efficiency and as consumers we take advantage of the lower prices.  This is how economies and economic equilibrium works.
Because of these changes over the past 20 years, there have been a whole lot of shipments of goods from Asia to the US.  Millions of containers have been shipped filled with the goods we need and desire.  Many of these goods were stacked and secured onto pallets which are basically wooden platforms that fork lifts can easily pick-up and move. 
Even these wooden pallets were made in Asia.  They were made there for the same reason other products are made there; they are less expensive.  If the number of containers shipped from Asia to the US is in the millions, the number of pallets that have made the trip is at least ten times that.  That is a lot of wood that came from a lot of trees many of which were ash trees. 
Aninnocent looking pallet
When these pallets first started to come this way, no one thought anything about it.  Brand new pallets looked both clean and sturdy.   There were no apparent issues; apparent being the key word.  It is suspect those simple wood pallets might have carried the Emerald Ash Borer, an Asian species of beetle, that breeds and feeds under the bark of ash trees.  In Asia, they are a nuisance.  Here, because of the kinds of ash trees we have, they are tree killers.
Ash Trees in our back yard - they look healthy from afar
I have known about these beetles and their migration from China for at least ten years but never thought anything of it.  Well, I never thought anything of it until this year.  For some reason this year, I have noticed dead or dying ash trees all around Chicago land.  The dead ash trees are apparent as one drives up and down I-275.  Lake Forest, the town I live in, is in the process of tagging and taking down diseased trees.  There are a lot of ash trees around.
We have five ash trees on our property.  There are dead branches in two of them a very bad sign.  They are all dropping their leaves now... a good month ahead of time.  This also is not a good sign.  There is an inoculation that
Not so healthy up close
is given to healthier trees once every two years that hold the Emerald Ash Borer at bay.  One arborist offered to inject our trees.  Another said the trees are infected and damaged and probably will not survive.  He gave an estimate to take them down.  Neither option is cheap.
How serious is this issue?  Here is a little excerpt from a Wikipedia piece on the Emerald Ash Borer problem.
EAB threatens the entire North American Fraxinus [ash tree] genus. It has killed at tens of millions of ash trees so far and threatens to kill most of the 8.7 billion ash trees throughout North America.  Emerald ash borer kills young trees several years before reaching their seeding age of 10 years. Field studies of the first Michigan forests first infested with EAB showed that the borer had killed off > 99% of all living Fraxinus. Forest floor samples of these same plots resulted in ground soils void of seeds which could be capable of germinating continued generations.[20] The loss of ash from an ecosystem can result in increased numbers of invasive plants, changes in soil nutrients, and effects on species that feed on ash.
Almost 9 billion trees? Hard to fathom. 

Adult Emerald Ash Borer - They fly from tree to tree

Emerald Ash Borer Larva - these kill the trees

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Is there a Michigan Defense on the Horizon?

Every year about this time, I write a bit about Michigan Football.  It is usually around the time of the Notre Dame game.  If we win, the article is full of joy, excitement, and great hope for the rest of the season.  If we lose, the excitement is certainly not about the hope for the rest of the season.  When we lose 31-0 and are shut out for the first time in 365 games, which is an NCAA record, everyone is talking about coaching and Athletic Director changes.

The Notre Dame game was on September 6th.  I am writing this on September 14.

I just saw a Facebook post that said, “Charles Woodson after The Oakland Raiders' 30-14 loss to the Houston Texans: ‘We suck. I am embarrassed.’"  This is how many Michigan fans are feeling these days:  embarrassed or worse.  People are giving up hope on Brady Hoke.  They want to replace senior, mediocre with occasional flashes of brilliance, quarterback Devin Gardner with sophomore Shane Morris.  It is not clear if Morris is any better but the general feeling is that he probably is not any worse and he is the future.  

More and more, the fan base is calling for the head of Dave Brandon the Athletic Director who has raised prices and lost interest of the fan base.  Tickets for off games, and this season with Dame, Michigan State, and Ohio State are all away games the schedule of rivalry games is week, are plentiful.  The Detroit News reported that for the September 13 game against Miami of Ohio, “tickets are plentiful on MGoBlue.com. As of Wednesday, there was a limit of 99 tickets for the game. An attempt to purchase that number was successful, with end zone seats available in Section 15 over eight rows.”  Rumors are that Brandon had to give out a few thousand free tickets to keep the another streak going:  252 games in a row with crowds of more than 100,000.  The Big House is a silly name for the stadium when there are empty seats.  There are 3,600 tickets available for the Utah game on September 20.  This is uncomfortable territory for Michigan

Michigan is 2-1.  The offense looks ugly with 7 turnovers in their first three games.  They racked up a lot of yards in their two wins against weak opponents.  The Wolverines had 560 and 490 in these two wins.  Against Notre Dame, Michigan outperformed the Irish in this regard by 289 to 280.  Here is a bright spot, and why I am not ready to completely throw in the towel on this team, our defense seems to have quietly gotten better.  I say this with a large dose of cautious optimism especially after all Michigan has been through the past decade.  

Where is this cautious optimism coming from?  Look at the numbers, Appalachian State was held to 153 yards rushing, 127 yards passing, for a total of 280 yards.  Notre Dame was held to the same 280 yards.  The only had 54 of rushing and 226 yards passing.  Miami of Ohio was held to just 33 yards of rushing and 165 yards of passing for 198 total yards.  Is it just me or are these numbers somewhat impressive?

Of course, time will tell.  They play Utah on September 20 and that will be a good next test.   In their first two games, the Utes were over 500 yards in each game with a good balance between run and pass.

I am not for getting rid of Hoke... just yet.  I do not want to see Michigan on the coaching change merry-go-round that stifled Notre Dame and Michigan State for so many years.  David Brandon?  He has not endeared himself to the fan base and, as Michigan has a new President, he has a new boss.  He could go.

For me, the glass is half full and I hope that Michigan is on the edge of having one of those stone wall shut ‘em down defenses that I so loved.