Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nicholas Rennie, BA

Flying from Sydney to LA takes about 14 hours. If you count the return trip and time spent traveling to and waiting at the airport, the total travel hours involved in a round trip journey to LA numbers around 36.  Last month, Mickey and I took a week off from work and made that 36 hour journey to LA and back to celebrate my brother Nic's graduation, an occasion which was truly worth the trip.

Eight years ago, Nic almost didn't graduate from high school. He moved among a crowd to whom academics weren't important. He's always been bright, but at that time had neither the motivation nor the confidence to succeed in school. In fact, Nic was mentioned by name in a friend's commencement address: "we'll remember the bad boy antics of Nic Rennie and..." My mom recalls hoping my grandmothers wouldn't be too embarrassed by this claim to fame.

Nic spent a couple of years at the community college, enrolling in and then dropping classes, but making steady scholarly progress. He met professors and encountered issues that inspired him to not only learn, but act. Three years ago he gathered the courage to apply to the University of California, Riverside (UCR), was accepted and thrived. He graduated cum laude with a BA in Philosophy.

My family and I had never been so proud of Nic and my mom decided to commemorate the event with a big family party. Her friend in the embroidery business customized about 25 ball caps that said either "friend of NIC" or "relative of NIC." Because the word 'Nic' was spelled out in all capital gold letters on official-looking navy blue hats, my cousin joked that we'd be mistaken for a government agency with the acronym 'N - I - C' like SWAT or FBI.

My mom decorated the house with flowers from her garden, but the food and beverage for the afternoon reflected the tastes of the man of the hour: imported microbrews and Reece's Peanut Butter Cups and Twix on every table. Buca di Beppo catered the main meal, an Italian feast featuring a tray of lasagna for 40 and a similar sized tray of meatballs the size of your fist. As you can imagine, we were eating leftovers for a week.

The weather was sunny and warm enough for games of croquet on the lawn. At one point, my cousin's three children were each playing with a set of mallets, balls and gates, but none of them were playing the same game. We'll call it creative croquet. Most guests were content to catch up with each other, wish Nic well and pose for pictures wearing the 'NIC' hats. I believe that a good time was had by all.

We spent the next day, Nic's actual graduation day, with a smaller subset of family. Our two Rennie cousins flew all the way out from New York and Florida to celebrate with Nic so it was great enjoy a champagne brunch at Riverside's Mission Inn hotel with them, Nic, Kat and my mom. It's funny that I remember wanting to treat Nic to brunch at the Mission Inn since the moment I learned he was going to UCR. The quality of the food is decent, but it's really quantity and variety that are the restaurant's brunch buffet specialty. We delighted in the uniqueness of each plate that returned from the dizzying buffet hall: mussels, corn salad, roast beef and a danish or ceviche, breadsticks and rice pudding.

The commencement ceremony, honoring many social science graduates, was special despite our proximity to rude, low-class families. Someone needs to get a word about graduation ceremony etiquette out to the masses (perhaps via WalMart or truck ads). Though my humble blog resembles neither of these, I'll step up and be that someone. Proud families of graduates, please do not talk at normal conversation volume throughout the duration of the commencement. It's rude. Also, do not stand up for a half an hour waiting for your graduate's name to be called. It prevents those behind you from seeing their loved one. Thank you; I'll step down from my soap box now.

Anyway, even those bogans couldn't stop us from savoring Nic's shining moment. He deliberately kept his cum laude status a secret from us so it would be a surprise, the sneaky little smarty. Though his Lakers lost game 5 of the 2010 NBA finals (but eventually went on to win the title), I hope Nic was still feeling like a champion on June 13, 2010. You deserve it, Buddy. I love you.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Vivid Sydney Returns

Well, really, Vivid Sydney returned and is now gone again; I'm just a bit slow with the updates.

Last year, I was incredibly impressed by Vivid Sydney, our city's festival of light, music and ideas. This year's program offered some of the same visual treats (a series of slowly changing colorful images and patterns projected on the Opera House), as well as something new.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the first NSW Governor Lachlan Macquarie's arrival in Australia and Vivid Sydney artists commemorated his achievements by projecting historical images and text on the facade of St Mary's cathedral. I personally feel there is no danger of anyone forgetting Lachlan Macquarie; indeed, you cannot travel two feet without running into a street, park, school or suburb named after the first governor or his wife, Elizabeth.

Still, I found the display absolutely stunning. A series of images, facts and diary and letter excerpts portrayed Macquarie as a compassionate man who showed mercy toward the convicts shipped to Australia against their will. Perhaps Australians are grateful to Macquarie because he granted their forefathers the dignity necessary to forge their new nation.

Though jetlagged, we insisted that my mom see Vivid Sydney on her first night in town and coincidentally the final night of the festival. And like last year, it was completely worth our while. Thank you so much, Sydney, for creating another piece of public art worth braving the chilly evening air.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Exploring Aussie Sports Part II: AFL

Months ago Mickey and I attended our first Australian Football League (AFL) game when we cheered the Sydney Swans in their decisive victory over the Richmond Tigers.

AFL players engage in a sport called Aussie Rules Football. I figure fans refer to the sport as AFL because ARF would be a little weird. 'My hobbies include painting, arf, karaoke...' Yes, better to refer to the sport by its league name, AFL, than have strangers assume you have some sort of canine Tourette's.

Anyway, the sport was designed to keep cricketers in shape in the off season. I find this puzzling because, in the words of Bill Bryson, 'cricket is the only sport in which the fans burn as many calories as players, more if mildly restless.' I can't imagine what sort of winter time activities would render one incapable of even cricket. Competitive eating, perhaps?

Though AFL is played on an oval-shaped cricket pitch, the similarities to cricket end there. While cricket is slow enough to make baseball seem positively thrilling, AFL is fast-paced and high scoring. To the untrained eye, it resembles a soccer/rugby hybrid sport. Players are allowed to kick and pass the ball, lift each other up and tackle. More than any of those actions, though, AFL involves running, so much running, you'd imagine it was designed to prep players for marathons not cricket.

I forget the rules, but recall sets of three goal posts on opposite ends of the field. When players kicked the ball through the center goal post, they score six points; if it goes through either of the side goal posts, they score three points. But because the Swans were so far ahead of the visiting Tigers, we didn't pay much attention to the scoring.

We spectators were more intrigued by the drunken fan who led cheers from the bottom of our tier. Mickey snapped as many photos of him as he did of the players. We also thoroughly enjoyed singing along to the victory song played at the end of the game and then joining our fellow fans on the pitch for photos and hundreds of simultaneous games of catch. It's as if the crowd couldn't wait another moment to burst on to the field and reenact their own moments of athletic glory under the harsh stadium lights. It was great fun until we almost got hit in the head by multiple AFL balls whizzing through the air.