Saturday, October 31, 2009

Derek Torres

I have tried, for the most part, to keep this blog light-hearted and fun during its thus-far brief existence. But it won't be light-hearted and fun tonight, and it might not be for a while.

Last week, I lost a very good friend, Derek Torres, to Swine Flu. He died at a hospital in Paris, and I'm even having to pause while typing this because it upsets me so much to think that Derek is gone. Derek left behind his wife and three young children, including a baby girl born in March. That in itself is more than tragic; it's unthinkably, devastatingly sad.

Aside from his family, Derek also left behind a legion of friends that included, as far as I can tell, pretty much everybody who ever knew him and even some people who didn't. I have tried since Tuesday night, when I got the horrible news, to put my feelings about Derek and his passing into words. I have failed thus far, and I'm failing now.

I want my tribute to Derek to be perfect, articulate, touching and memorable. Derek, though, wouldn't care about any of that stuff. The master of the one-word e-mail and the one-line postcard would probably prefer something brief and funny--but I just don't think I have any funny in me right now. Besides, this isn't about me. It's about Derek. So, I'll just say what comes to mind.

I never knew anybody who didn't like Derek Torres. In fact, I never knew anybody who didn't like him a lot, or even love him, even after chatting with him for just a few minutes. He was charismatic but never intentionally so--that was just the way he was. He never put on a show. Really, Derek was a bit shy, but he had a sharp wit and a relaxed demeanor that both entertained people and made them comfortable around him.

Derek could laugh at anything. He found everything funny. He made everything funny. A lot (most) of our inside jokes I'd rather not repeat or try to explain here, but trust me when I say that Derek could look at a road sign, a box of cereal or a completely innocuous magazine cover (anything, really) and have us both shaking with laughter about it in seconds. He was funny without being cruel or self-deprecating, and that's a rare trait for anybody to have. He was one of the most clever and quick-witted people I've ever known.

For lack of a better phrase, Derek was also the least argumentative person I've ever known. That's not to say that he didn't stand up for himself and his family--he did. But I never had a cross word with him, and he told me once that he'd never had so much as a tiff with a lifelong friend of his who is now also a friend of mine.

Derek didn't even make snide jokes at friends' expense or drop an insult followed with "ah, I'm just kidding." He wasn't that way. He was unfailingly nice to everybody--especially the people he loved. I always admired that about him. I was always comfortable around him. His loyalty to his friends was unshakable, and his reliability was never in question.

For me, the bottom line of Derek Torres's life was that that he loved people and wanted everybody around him to be happy all the time. He loved his family most of all, of course, and relished every chance he got to get his wife the boys, his late father (who died a couple of years ago), his mom and his brother together. He loved his friends, too. And he made us all happy--with his humor, with his warmth, with his love.

Derek loved a good joke (and really loved a great one) and wasn't somebody who often spoke in muted, sincere tones. He was too busy cracking a joke or making an observation that would have me buckled over with laughter for 20 minutes. But I know that he loved me and all of his friends and family. It was obvious every day, every time I saw him or connected with him on instant messenger, which is how we stayed in touch when we were living in different cities or on different continents.

Derek was always very good about keeping in touch. Distance meant nothing to him. He was a traveler both literally and in terms of crossing miles and time zones digitally. I've lost regular contact with some dear friends due to a move, but I never lost contact with Derek. Morning after morning, his IM would pop up as soon as I managed to drag myself out of bed and fire up my computer. He was always around somewhere, somehow.

Here's another testament to his friendship: When my ex-wife and I divorced, he remained good friends with both of us, staying in contact and listening to our separate concerns. His capacity for sympathy and compassion knew no bounds.

We, his friends, loved him. People who read his blog and had never met him loved him. Friends of mine who met him once (at my wedding, in which he was a groomsman) were crushed by his death. A night or two before he died, when I was still sure that he was going to pull through (Derek, after all, was one tough dude), I said to my wife, "I can't imagine a world without Derek Torres." I'll bet most people who knew him felt the same way.

And I still can't. I don't want to have to. Derek left a hole in the lives of his loved ones as large as the man himself--and he did, after all, christen himself FatMans (and not ironically). So, while Derek (I believe) communes with God, we're all down here now, trying to figure out why this diamond of a human being didn't even make it to 35, praying for his family and wondering what we're going to do without him. I haven't figured it out yet. I don't know that I ever will.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Great place, great people and spectacular views in autumn. The photos don't do the place justice, but here's a taste:
The rest of the (very large and completely unedited) set is here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

(Not) Remembering the AFL

f there's one thing sports fans are talking about today, it's yesterday's New England-Denver NFL game. Why? Well, because it was an important game...Denver moved to 5-0 and dropped the out-of-sync Pats to 3-2, further dampening the Boston sports scene on the same day on which the Red Sox got booted from the playoffs by the California Angels of Anaheim at Los Angeles Angels of California at Anaheim. Or whatever they're called now.

But what really has fans talking today isn't so much the game itself as it is the sartorial implications of the throwback AFL uniforms both teams--particularly Denver--wore in honor of the 50th anniversary of the rebel football league that took on the NFL and actually managed to infiltrate it.
Consensus seems to be that the vintage 1960 Broncos throwbacks were hideous, but, as you might imagine, I actually liked them. The gold jerseys were arresting, and the striped socks and stripes down the pants made many of the players--even some of the linemen--look taller and sleeker than they probably are.

Credit to Denver, too, for going all out for this one--the end zones at whatever Mile High Stadium is called now had traditional diamond designs painted in them, and at one point CBS pointed its camera to a Broncos PR official who was decked out in a brown and yellow suit and hat straight from 1960s. Righteous. The only problem with the game, of course, is that the Pats lost.

But, although New England-Denver was the fashion and football highlight game from the NFL yesterday, the one that intrigued me most was Dallas-Kansas City. Of course, as a lifelong Cowboys fan, I'm always interested in what the Cowboys are doing--even if I can't stand Jerry Jones and get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I see that Arkansas carpetbagger celebrating a victory.

There was a lot more to yesterday's game for me than just interest in seeing the Cowboys play, however. When I was a small child, I remember being at someone's house--I don't remember whose--with my parents and seeing painted footballs (the kind a player gets when he earns a game ball) with the words "Dallas Texans" on them. Now, I don't think we were in the home of a former Texans player, so I don't know where the footballs came from. But I do remember asking my dad who on earth these Dallas Texans were.

He explained to me that the Texans had been part of the old American Football League and that they had moved to Kansas City for the 1963 season after three seasons in Dallas. Founded by prominent Dallasite Lamar Hunt, the Texans had started playing in the Cotton Bowl in 1960...the same year the Cowboys occupied that stadium for their first season.

What really got me, though, was that my dad told me that the Texans were his first favorite pro football team--he was a Texans fan, not a Cowboys fan, as a high school kid in 1960. And he remembers well to this day the AFL Championship Game the Texans won in 1962, a game in which they beat the rival Houston Oilers in professional football's first-ever double-overtime game. (I want to say--and and have said before--that my dad was at that game in Houston, but I might have just dreamed that or something. He might very well have been there, but I haven't asked him about it in recent years because I'd rather live with the hazy notion that he attended this legendary contest than find out that I've been wrong about that all these years. And so I do.)

My father joined the Army in 1963, shortly after Hunt ceded Dallas to the Cowboys and moved the Texans to Kansas City. Dad went to Germany and didn't come home until 1966--and, given the lack of Internet or satellite TV in that era, my guess is that he didn't follow football much. So, in a sense, my dad was a Texans fan until the mid-'60s, when he returned to Dallas and adopted the Cowboys. (For the record, though, he can't stand Jerry Jones, either, and gets an odd feeling of satisfaction these days when Dallas loses.)

Over the years, while watching football or just chatting about it, my dad would tell me stories of the old Texans. Legendary coach Hank Stram led an entertaining team with a high-flying offense. Interestingly, many of the Texans were actual Texans--TCU's own Jack Spikes and Sherrill Headrick starred for the team, as did--in 1960, anyway--Cotton Davidson, a quarterback from Baylor.

And then there was a young man from what is now the University of North Texas, the school my dad was attending the year the Texans won the big game in Houston. The man's name was Abner Haynes, and he was a former North Texas star and--for my dad, anyway--one of the all-time greats. Abner Haynes was an African-American star in an era before the old Southwest Conference (Texas's showcase college conference of the era) was integrated. North Texas integrated long before most schools in Texas and the South, so Haynes became a big-time player for the Eagles in the '50s and then went on to become a popular Texan.

Many were the times when Dad would tell me about Abner waiting for a kickoff--back when the goal posts were still on the goal line--by leaning back on a goal post with one foot resting on it behind him. Then, Abner would sprint forward, catch the ball, and launch a long and electrifying kickoff return. I'm probably still one of the few football fans younger than 60 who knows who Abner Haynes is; I'm surely one of the very few who knows of his exploits with the Texans.

Needless to say, I've been intrigued by the AFL for years--by the rebellious nature of it, by Hunt's desire to break the iron-fisted rule the NFL had over professional football in the '50s, by the ridiculous uniforms, by the outcast personalities who populated the league, by the league's powerful and lasting legacy, and by the team that won Dallas's first professional football championship. (But not, however, its first professional football game--the 1952 Dallas Texans, a one-season NFL franchise, earned that honor by beating the mighty Chicago Bears for their only win of an otherwise dismal season. But even my dad probably doesn't remember the original Texans all that well.)

Anyway, back to Cowboys-Chiefs, at last. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the AFL and of the late Lamar Hunt, the Chiefs wore spectacular 1960 Texans throwback uniforms yesterday, including the splendid helmets with the state of Texas on them and a star in the state representing Dallas. The Cowboys responded by wearing the closest thing they have to 1960 throwbacks, which, as it turns out, aren't actually exact replicas of what the team wore in 1960. The result was gorgeous, if I can use that word to describe a football game:
Given my soft spot for all things Kansas City--my father-in-law's family hails from there, and my wife herself went to high school in Manhattan, Kansas--and given that the Chiefs were wearing, surely for the first time anybody has since 1962, the uniform of my dad's original favorite pro football team, I was honestly a little torn about which team I wanted to win the game. I was somehow happy when the game ended in a tie after regulation--and even happier when the Cowboys won in overtime (until I saw Jerry Jones celebrating on TV, and that sick feeling came back again).

What made me happiest, though, was that the Dallas Texans, long gone and mostly forgotten, were getting a little recognition on the NFL stage. The old AFL has left a massive and lasting legacy on pro football, as evidenced by the AFL franchises that still exist in the NFL today and the success many of them have had. The AFL actually cracked the NFL's hierarchy by merging with the old-line league--but not before famously pulling two consecutive upsets in Super Bowls III and IV, which were played back when the leagues were still separate entities.

Lamar Hunt was the driving force behind the AFL, and it's a shame that he didn't live long enough to see Sunday's game. According to an excellent article in the Kansas City Star, Hunt always wanted the Texans to face the Cowboys and was convinced that he had the better team. (And, in the early '60s, he might have, despite the fact that the AFL was mostly a league for NFL castoffs, or so the experts said.) The Texans' attendance was on par with that of the Cowboys in the early '60s; the team had a following, but its future was never going to be in the Lone Star State. Dallas would belong to a great man, Tom Landry, and his Cowboys.

Of course, Hunt's Texans-Cowboys Cotton Bowl showdown never happened, and Hunt took his franchise to KC--where, it's worth noting, it won a Super Bowl two years before the Cowboys claimed their first Super Bowl title. (Of course, the Cowboys now have five to their name, and the Chiefs still have only one. But still...) As the Star article notes, it's funny that the game ended in a tie after regulation yesterday--because, in 1960, there was no overtime for regular-season games. The Texans and Cowboys, meeting at last (sort of), played yesterday to a dead heat. And then, perhaps appropriately, the Cowboys just pipped the old Texans in overtime.

But, best of all, I got to get a tiny little taste of what it was like to see Dallas's "other" team play, the star-studded champion that time forgot and that left Dallas in the hands of a legendary franchise. Sure, it was the Chiefs playing in hi-def in KC and not the Texans playing in black and white in the Cotton Bowl, but I felt a certain bond with my dad nonetheless.

I got so excited, in fact, that I went out last night and sponsored Abner Haynes's page at in honor of my dad. It's a small gesture, and maybe a strange one at that, but I feel as though by keeping Abner's stats alive, I'm helping to preserve the legacy of a man, a team and a league I don't remember but have always wished I could have known.

Monday, October 5, 2009


I like cars to the extent that I enjoy watching Top Gear on the BBC (maybe the best show on television right now--or possibly ever) and I get pretty heavily into Formula 1. Outside of that, I'm not what you'd call a car buff.

Certainly, from a mechanical perspective, I'm totally useless, and I can't even really drive a stick. So, a grease monkey (or petrolhead, as our British friends would say) I am not. I am, however, awfully sentimental, so I let out a bit of a wistful sigh last week when the news broke that Saturn, a little principality on the edge of the crumbling GM empire, was almost certainly dead.

I had two Saturns in my pre-Europe days. My ex-wife and I had one in college that my parents essentially bought for us; we took it with us when we moved to Brooklyn and drove it north again when we moved to Stoneham, Mass. It was, to my memory, a gold 1996 SL1 (or possibly SL2) with tan interior. And it was a fantastic car.

The little Saturn could chug through anything. It survived the broiling heat of Texas; the salt, sand, snow and potholes of New England and the general abuse of New York City. Many were the weekends we drove it out of Brooklyn and up to my ex's parents' place in New Hampshire, and the little gold Saturn never so much as lost tire pressure. It was completely reliable, surprisingly comfortable and powerful enough to allow us to zip around on the highway with confidence.

In 2000, my ex and I needed to buy a second car because I started a new job, and my new office wasn't reachable by public transportation (which not many things are in Greater Boston, frankly). We drove to Saturn of Danvers without hesitation, armed with a $1500 down-payment bonus from my new employer and intending to buy another SL1 (or SL2--I still can't remember).

My need for a car was fairly urgent, and I was disappointed when the friendly salesman at the dealership told us that there weren't any used (new was not in the budget this time) SLs available--except for...a wagon. A wagon? For heaven's sake, I was 26 years old and didn't have kids. Why on earth would I buy a wagon?

The sales guy assured me that the wagon was just a regular SL--same length and everything--with a wagon back on it. I drove it--reluctantly--and loved it. It turned out to be one of the greatest cars I've ever had. The little maroon Saturn had all the comfort and capabilities of its gold older brother, but it also had an absolutely immense amount of room in the back.

Seriously, this thing had SUV-level storage without being an SUV, and it got great gas mileage and drove like a regular car. We could haul anything in it--and did. (There was a memorable camping trip on Martha's Vineyard for which the wagon was absolutely fantastic.) And I eventually came to embrace the notion of owning a wagon; it was so incredibly uncool that it verged on coolness, and it was an early "green" statement (although one I didn't really consciously intend to make) in the age of the massive SUV.

In late June of 2001, in preparation for moving to France, my ex and I sold our Saturns. To my memory, we sold both to Saturn of Danvers, and we didn't lose a penny on the deal--the gold one we owned outright (thanks, Mom and Dad), and the dealership bought out the entire loan on the wagon. I remember driving my wagon for the last time and really not wanting to let it go. The excitement of moving to France was tempered by the loss of a car I had really come to love.

Now, I could say that my Saturns represented a memorable time in my life, a time when my ex and I were still happily married, a time when we had great jobs and a bit of money and a life that we ended up tearing apart (with no regrets) by moving to Europe. But really, for me, this post is all about the cars.

I'm happier now than I've ever been before, so I don't look back with particular wistfulness on my Saturn days--just on the cars themselves. And when I moved back to the US from France in 2006 and needed to buy a car, I didn't go with a Saturn. I bought a Scion tC, a little two-door coupe made by Toyota...because it looked like (and, I still think, was) the best value for the money. I'm very happy with it. By 2006, Saturns (to my mind, anyway) had become a little bigger, a little clunkier and definitely more expensive. They were less Saturn and more GM. They had lost that unique feel that had attracted me and so many others to them in the first place.

I was never a Saturn groupie. I didn't make the pilgrimage to Spring Hill, Tenn. I didn't hang out with other Saturn people. I didn't have t-shirts or other Saturn paraphernalia. I didn't join a Saturn message board or subscribe to some sort of e-mail list.

But I did love those two cars, two late-'90s (I think the wagon was a '98) models of a unique vehicle the likes of which American producers had never really made before and don't really make now. I think I caught Saturn at its peak--after the company had had time to perfect its approach and its vehicles and before GM started to choke the life out of its little experimental branch.

I'd like to think that somewhere (I'm still looking) somebody is stuffing sports gear in my maroon wagon, and some family is happily scooting around in my little gold four-door sedan. (Both cars are probably in junkyards somewhere, but I'm trying to put a happy ending on this.) And I'm a little sad to think that GM and Saturn couldn't keep it going, couldn't make a good-looking, fuel-efficient, comfortable, Euro-style car with no-haggle dealerships and a dedicated following stick in the American market.

Or maybe I'm a little disappointed that they didn't try a bit harder. (It's certainly sad to learn, too, that 13,000 people will lose their jobs--not to mention the impact Saturn's disappearance will have on dealerships all over the country.) In any case, though, I'm happy and proud to have been part of the Saturn experiment, and my memories of it will always be good.

RIP, Saturn, 1991-2009.