2/23/2010

On the Road, Back Soon . . .

I'll be traveling for the next week or so in Texas and on the Gulf Coast. Please check back for new postings in early March.

'Till then, here's a Gulf Coast sunset I shot many years ago.

2/18/2010

An Old Friend in Winter

My pal Beaucat will be 17 years old in a few weeks, and it’s hard to watch a close friend grow old.

Beaucat has been with Jane and me since we lived in Florida. We got him and his sister, Harrie, at the St. Lucie County Animal Shelter in Fort Pierce. I was reluctant to get pets. We were both busy with very demanding jobs, and I didn’t think we’d be able to spend any time with them. And I knew that sooner or later, we’d have to deal with losing them, and that made me uncomfortable. But Jane talked me into it.

One day in July 1993, we agreed to meet at the animal shelter during our lunch hour. Jane got there ahead of me and had found two kittens she liked by the time I got there. I stood in front of a small cage, the attendant opened it, and the kitten that would become Beaucat came right out like I was late for an appointment. He walked up my right arm, stood on my shoulder, and meowed loudly. I’m guessing he was saying something like “What took you so long? Get me the hell out of here.”

Beaucat is doing a lot of loud howling these days, but it’s a different kind. From what Jane and I have read at various cat websites, it’s related to old age. He seems out of it at times, sort of lost. The howling, according to what we’ve read, is because he’s confused, disoriented and lonely. It’s a sort of feline senile dementia.

It’s not easy to deal with sometimes, because he can be very, very loud and it sounds like he’s mad and scolding me. It’s an incredibly grating howl, and it can instantly break my focus if I’m trying to concentrate on work. Sometimes he does it when I’m in the middle of a phone call, and I have to explain to whoever I’m talking to that no, I’m not torturing a cat, I have an elderly cat that’s getting senile.

But he usually stops when I pick him up and drape him across my shoulder. That seems to be where he’s wanted to be since that day 17 years ago in the animal shelter. When I was working on my first book, he was often draped across my shoulder snoozing. It became such a habit for us that I’d suddenly realize I didn’t remember when he’d jumped on my lap and climbed up on my shoulder, or how long he’d been there. And when I pick him up now, he often drapes across my shoulder, sighs loudly and settles down, and for a while it’s just like old times.

We lost Harrie (right) to cancer in 2005, and the sadness that had made me reluctant to get pets in the first place because they’d eventually die was as bad as I’d feared. But Harrie was a great cat, and having her for 12 years was wonderful.

Beaucat’s time will come sooner rather than later, and I dread it. But he’s been a great companion and has enriched our lives, and I wouldn’t take anything for that memory.

2/11/2010

Tar Heels miss Psycho-T's intensity


It’s been a tough year for the University of North Carolina basketball team. As mid-February approaches, the Tar Heels are near the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings, and the prospects of improving seem remote.

It’s quite a comedown from a year ago, when Tyler “Psycho-T” Hansbrough led the Tar Heels to their sixth national championship. *

Hansbrough was unlike any player I’ve ever seen in a Carolina uniform. He wasn’t the first immensely talented player to lead UNC to glory. But his focus and passion for winning were unearthly. He was a superstar who played as though he was a scrappy but marginally talented teenager trying to win the last spot on a high school junior varsity team.

He was bloodied, banged and decked by other players, and he bounced up and charged back into the game. He dove for loose balls like a crazed little point guard instead of a 6-9 power forward. Sometimes when he grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back up to score, it seemed like he had the entire opposing team literally hanging onto him.

His manic intensity prompted his teammates to nickname him Psycho-T, and you could see his intensity on his face. To borrow a phrase from “My Name Is Earl,” he had crazy-eyes. And he gave that kind of effort for four years, unheard of in an era when college superstars forego their junior or senior seasons to become instant millionaires in the NBA.

Despite losing Hansbrough and every other key player on last year’s team, UNC was ranked sixth nationally by the Associated Press at the start of the 2009-10 season.

I don’t claim to be a highly skilled basketball analyst, but I’ve watched UNC long enough to know that that ranking was far off the mark. Back on January 2, as the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball schedule was getting underway, I sent the following to Alan Snel, an old friend in Tampa who knows I’m an intense Carolina fan:

“As for the basketball Heels, I’m not expecting much from them this year. Maybe 3rd or 4th in the ACC and a game or two deep into the NCAA (tournament). Of course, that’s a very good season for most teams. They’re loaded with talent, as usual, but I don’t think they’ve got the experience to do better in the conference or NCAA tourney this year.”

Turns out I overestimated the Heels’ season. After last night’s loss to (shudder) Duke (shudder), they’re 13-11 and unlikely to make the NCAA playoffs unless they have a phenomenal stretch run – the kind of intense, focused run that could only be inspired by a player like Psycho-T.

The team has been hampered by injuries that sidelined players who could have made a difference. Something else is plaguing this year’s Tar Heels, however, and coach Roy Williams has been unusually frustrated.

Williams has assembled his usual collection of highly talented athletes. But anyone who goes after a big prize eventually learns that once you reach a certain level of competition, exceptional talent alone is not enough to win because the other guys are just as good as you are.
Beating players who are as good as you are takes willpower and a lot of hard work. Caulton Tudor, a veteran sportswriter for the News and Observer, noted that Williams said he’d never before had to coach effort.

Carolina has seemed astonishingly listless and indifferent at times, and I’m thinking the lethargy is directly related to Tyler Hansbrough’s departure. While he was at UNC, he showed the Tar Heels the kind of effort it takes to win, and his example motivated his teammates to give the effort it took to win a national title. Until another player emerges with that same drive – and until injuries heal and Carolina can consistently put their best five players on the floor – UNC will struggle.

So I guess the lesson, not very profound but certainly instructive, is that one person can make a tremendous difference in the effort exerted by a group of people. And the Tar Heels are suffering from the absence of Hansbrough’s intense desire to win.

(* The Tar Heels' six national titles include NCAA championships in 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009. In 1924, before the NCAA tournament started, they were named national champions by the Helms Foundation. The banner for the 1924 title is hanging in the rafters of the Dean Dome with the five NCAA banners.)

Photo of UNC coach Roy Williams by Chuck Liddy for the News and Observer

2/04/2010

State Farm will cancel hurricane coverage in Florida at peak of 2010 season


NBC News reported yesterday that on August 1, State Farm will cancel homeowners' insurance coverage for about 125,000 customers in hurricane-prone Florida. But NBC did not explain why State Farm probably chose that date to end its coverage.

Anyone who’s lived in Florida any length of time knows that the worst hurricanes usually come after August 1. By that date, the summer sun has been heating the tropical Atlantic for several months, and there’s plenty of warm water to fuel the monster storms that usually form between mid-August and mid-September. Although very powerful hurricanes have formed in July, the memorable monster storms such as Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Camille and the unnamed killer hurricanes of 1926, 1928 and 1935 all formed after August 1. And the five major hurricanes that affected Florida in 2004 and 2005 and inflicted more than $40 billion in damages all came after that date.

State Farm was required by law to give policyholders at least six months’ notice of cancellations, NBC reported. The company could have started that six-month countdown at any time. But any insurance actuary knows that the likelihood of a catastrophic hurricane striking Florida – and the subsequent payout of billions of dollars in damage claims – is far greater after August 1. So it doesn’t seem unlikely that State Farm decided to reduce its exposure to damage claims by ending its coverage when the worst storms usually form.

There also are early indications that the upcoming summer is going to be more active than 2009. A weather phenomenon known as El Niño kept the lid on last summer’s hurricane season by creating upper-level winds over the Atlantic that disrupted hurricane formation throughout the summer. But meteorologists expected the El Niño to dissipate during the winter of 2009-10, and there are clear signs that that’s what is happening.

So if those upper-level winds are gone, more hurricanes are likely to form in the tropical Atlantic this summer.

NBC News also reported that State Farm will help the customers it’s dumping find coverage with other agencies.

Photo of downtown Punta Gorda, Florida after Hurricane Charley in August 2004 is by Mark Wolfe for FEMA.