Wednesday, April 22, 2009

three simple things

Twenty years ago, a little book called 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth was published for the first time. I remember getting a copy shortly thereafter, around the time of the big 1990 Earth Day celebration, and I vowed to practice as many of the 50 things as humanly possible. I guess I lost track of my copy, but I've always tried to live by that vow to the best of my ability.

As luck would have it, I happened to find an old copy of 50 Simple Things on a neighborhood stoop a few weeks ago, so I of course picked it up. (By the way, the habit of leaving used books on stoops for others to take, instead of tossing them in the trash, is one of my favorite Brooklyn traditions.) I wasn't surprised to find that although 50 Simple Things was written decades before things like carbon credits and hybrid vehicles became mainstream ideas, it remains as relevant as ever. So on this Earth Day, I thought I'd pick out what I consider to be the top three truly simplest things from the book that you can do to pitch in.

Stop junk mail: According to 50 Simple Things, in the late 80s Americans received almost 2 million tons of junk mail each year, and could expect to spend eight full months of their life opening it. While these stats are now 20 years old, I can personally attest to the never-ending influx of catalogs, credit card come-ons, and other unwanted mail that continues to pour through. Indeed, the EPA estimates that the amount of junk mail Americans get today has doubled to 4 million tons. How many trees, and how much energy and money have we lost to the junk mail industry? Now that we're in the age of email and spam (which is another problem, but certainly not as detrimental environmentally), it's pretty shocking to contemplate just how much we're wasting on junk mail. The good news is, there are a number of easy things you can do to cut down on your mailings. One is to simply call the companies you regularly get mailings from and tell them to stop. But you can also get in touch with the Direct Marketing Association, which handles postal mail preferences on this handy website. Or, you can sign up with groups like, which strive to help eliminate unwanted mail from being sent. Of course, for any mail you do get, make sure you recycle it! (And if you're worried about privacy, I recommend purchasing a cheap shredder.)

Recharge your batteries: Since 50 Simple Things was published, battery technology has gotten a lot better. For one thing, the amount of toxic mercury in household batteries has decreased by some 98 percent. On the flip side, though, we're using and throwing out more batteries than ever before, what with the rapid increase in the number of electronics that now call for batteries, where electrical cords might once have been used. So the two simple things you can do to reduce the amount of toxic chemicals released into the ground and air as a result of battery use are: use rechargeable batteries and recycle the one-use batteries you do purchase. Rechargeable batteries have gotten significantly cheaper and longer-lasting than in years past, and they're really easy to use. And more and more companies are offering free recycling not only of basic alkaline batteries, but for things like cell phone and camera batteries, too. For example, many Whole Foods Markets feature battery recycling bins, where the public can drop off used batteries. If you don't have a Whole Foods in your neighborhood, go to Earth911 to find the battery recycling center nearest you. And for more on battery recycling in general, check out this page from the EPA.

Bring your own bag: Paper bags are making a comeback at some retail stores, but plastic bags are still cheaper to make, so they aren't going away anytime soon. You can recycle paper bags and reuse plastic bags for garbage or packaging, but your greenest option is to bring your own bag when you go shopping. It sounds simple, but there's one catch: you have to remember to bring your bag even when you don't anticipate going shopping! Pretty much every chain grocery store has made some money off of selling non-disposable grocery bags, which look and feel virtuous when you parade them out of the store. But so often, people forget to bring them the next time they go to buy something, which defeats the whole purpose of buying a reusable bag in the first place! So if you really want to make a difference, buy an easily collapsible canvas or sturdy plastic bag—and not one you care too much about keeping pretty—in your car or your handbag or briefcase at all times. You'll be surprised at how often you find yourself using it, and you'll feel a lot better when you get home and realize that there's no baggage to dispose of!

Friday, April 17, 2009

citi field of dreams

And then it was gone.

I had been looking forward to my first trip to Citi Field for some time, and yet when it finally arrived, there was a sense of anxiety that welled up in my gut. The moment had at last come for me to take in the finality of Shea Stadium's demise. As I wrote last fall, it was like an old friend had gone out to pasture, never to return. Seeing photographs of the battered old stands, first stripped nude, then knocked down and picked apart by giant metallic arms, it reminded me of watching a dead animal decomposing. I had friends who went out to watch the demolition of the last piece, but I had wanted nothing of it. And without a reason to head out to Flushing for the past six months, I suppose I was keeping myself stuck in the denial stage of grief.

But then, as I sat on the north side of a surprisingly uncrowded rush-hour 7 train around 5:30 yesterday evening, the emotions took over. The familiar sight of the bright blue cylinder off in the distance, usually sporting some snazzy new slogan like "Amazing Again" or "Our Team, Our Time," simply didn't materialize. With Citi Field a bit further east, it appeared for a moment as though I'd see nothing but trees where once a grand, albeit quirky, stadium once stood. I'm sure this sounds completely ridiculous to those of you who aren't sports fans, but I'm a sucker for sports drama, and will admit to shedding a tear at the drop of a hat for things like a player getting his number retired, the death of a beloved sports announcer, and, yes, even some of those cheesy profiles they dish us during the Olympics. So I suppose I should have guessed that this might happen, but I honestly wasn't expecting to feel so overwhelmed.

That said, it was a day for hello, not goodbye, and my little moment was eclipsed by the view of a really spiffy-looking new ballpark! After pulling into the newly re-christened "Mets - Willets Point" stop, I took out my camera and got ready to use it. In front of the main gate, I met my friends, who, to my amusement, were decked out in as much Mets gear as I was. After looking unsuccessfully for the home plate location commemorating Shea (that part of the parking lot wasn't paved over yet, so I guess we'll catch it next time), we headed into the new Jackie Robinson rotunda.

My first impression was that it's certainly a nice entryway. There are two sets of stairs flanking a series of escalators and a giant "42" statue, along with photos of and quotations from the late Jackie Robinson. At this point I have to mention that although I grew up a Mets fan and will die a Mets fan, I also root for the San Francisco Giants, because my father grew up rooting for the New York Giants before they moved out west. You probably already know that the Mets took the colors of the Giants and the crosstown rival Brooklyn Dodgers after those two teams left for California in the 1950s, leaving New York without a National League team. And you may have also heard that Brooklyn-born Mets owner Fred Wilpon basically designed his new stadium to look exactly like the Dodgers' old Ebbets Field. Well, I can tell you right now that it's kind of ridiculous how much the Dodgers have a place in this stadium over not only the Giants, but over the Mets themselves. In the entryways and the walkways, the Mets are nowhere to be seen except in the occasional appearance of a friendly Mr. Met. There are some photos of former Mets along the far left field façade of the building, but that's pretty much it. The Dodgers are recalled not just in the design of the entryway, but in the fact that the whole rotunda celebrates a Dodger, and also in a gigantic photograph of Ebbets field that greets you as you enter the main field level. This, as opposed to Shea, where all around you had posters and photographs of historic Met moments and our Mets heroes. Honestly, I was disappointed big-time in this lack of celebration of our team, and I truly hope that in coming years the powers that be do something to rectify the situation.

But wow, what a view once the field came into view. Since we got there early, we decided to take a long stroll around the entire stadium before heading up to our seats. The sight lines looked amazing, the colors were vibrant, the field was very, very green, and it was almost surreal to think that this was my new baseball home. The ushers were spotty about letting people down into the lower seats to take photographs, which was a departure from the ability to walk down for autographs until just before game time at Shea. It was great to see the new, gigantic Mets apple. That, plus the orange foul poles, were really the two things that said "Mets" about the field itself. Incidentally, my brother pointed out to me recently that the outfield walls, with their orange lettering on a sea of black, were reminiscent of the old Polo Grounds, home of the baseball Giants back in the day, and the first home stadium that the Mets ever played in. Okay, I will give them that. But I honestly don't think that whoever designed that wall was doing so with the Giants in mind! People have also suggested that the seat color of green was done as a nod to the Polo Grounds, and again I say hooey. Stadiums with forest green seats are pretty much the norm these days.

Aside from the field itself, we of course had to take note of the food situation, which had been written about in numerous articles over the previous several weeks. Although it was an hour before game time, the field level was absolutely swarming with people, and where a few of the main "gourmet" food booths, including the Shake Shack and Blue Smoke, were located, it was a genuine mob scene. You could barely move just to pass on through, and I can only imagine how long the wait was for a Shack burger. I can't help but wonder whether the Mets might have been better served to place some of the nicer booths higher up in the Promenade level... It was nice to see probably the most prominent reminder of Shea in this area, though: the old New York skyline, which had been nicely re-lit and which still had the ribbon over the former Twin Towers. And I don't want to forget to mention a small but important point: The Mets are finally featuring recycling bins next to their trash cans! As annoyed as I always was that Shea never EVER had recycling, I was very glad to see those special bottle-and-can receptacles dotting Citi Field.

Anyway, around the corner, behind right-center field we noticed some picnic tables, which seemed like a cool idea. It'll be interesting to see if those become a place where people run to in order to stake out spots for the evening, as the views are probably better from there than from a lot of seats. Behind those, we discovered a nice area where the old Home Run Apple was quietly hiding. There's actually a second entrance at this part of the field, just across the street from all the chop shops of Willets Point. But few people were taking advantage of it. That said, a couple dozen fans had lined up to have their picture taken with the dented old apple, which had clearly seen better days. I'm glad that the Mets decided to bring it over, though, as there had been some discussion about its future.

The only other real surprise was a mini supermarket located underneath the Pepsi porch area. Never in a sporting arena have I seen a place to buy foodstuffs like gummi bears, rice crackers, cookies (loved the orange-and-blue black-and-whites), prepackaged cold foods like pasta salad and sandwiches, etc. The prices were pretty high for what they were, but if you consider you're gonna pay for convenience, it wasn't outrageous. After that, we headed up to the middle level (which we skipped completely except for my five-minute stop in the very girlie Alyssa Milano Mets store; no return trip necessary), and then straight up to the Promenade, which is, for all intents and purposes, the upper deck.

It's been said that the Promenade at Citi Field is as high as the Mezzanine level at Shea. And it shows. The views, especially closer to the plate, are excellent. I truly doubt that there are any bad seats in the whole place. In the front sections there were loads of seats available for handicapped fans to bring their wheelchairs, which was really nice to see. And the sight lines were quite good no matter where you were. Our seats were up in the left field corner, just to the left of the foul pole. We definitely couldn't see the left field wall, or a good 10 feet in front of it, and that did cause us to miss a couple of plays. But overall you had a stellar view of 99 percent of the field, even from pretty far away.

By the time we got to our seats, we had worked up an appetite, so it was time to try the culinary offerings. I've decided to eat something different at each of the nine games I have tickets for this year. So for this first night, I had the grilled sausage sandwich. I'll save my review for another post later in the year, but I will say that I was happy to see they are finally letting us keep the bottle caps for our drinks! Temperatures were in the low 40s for the evening, and with steady winds whipping around, we were pretty much freezing from the moment we sat down. Food lines at regular old hot dog stands were relatively long until about the 6th inning, when some people actually started to leave (I'm telling you, it was chilly). Around that time, I took a long stroll to check out some of the team stores—and to get some blood flowing to the outer extremities, which were starting to lose feeling—and they had some nice new wares at the main shop on the Promenade level. I did notice there are a lot fewer stores than at Shea, so the main shop was crammed with people—although the fact that it was the third game in the life of the new stadium and that the store was heated probably also had something to do with it.

In the late innings, we decided to move closer to the plate, and into the lower reserved Promenade section (there was no trouble in doing so). Once again, I will say that the view was amazing, and we were still in the top level of the stadium! The game itself was a typical Mets game: get a lead, give up a lead, desperation catch-up push at the end that falls just short. But I think it's safe to say that the day was less about the baseball game before us than about taking in the new situation. After the last out was recorded, we headed for the exits, which weren't as crowded as I'd prepared for (but again, many people had left early). The parking lot was easy to navigate, and we were on the highway in less than 10 minutes. All in all it was a stellar evening, and I came away with the feeling that Citi Field is going to be an awesome baseball stadium for a long, long time. They built it. Now, let the championships come!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

car talk

I've wanted to check out the New York International Auto Show for some time now, and yesterday provided a perfect opportunity, what with some soggy April showers ruining outdoor plans. Plus, my brother had recently turned me on to an awesome British car show called Top Gear, so it would be a great chance to see a few of the models they'd demoed. I had actually been, briefly, to the Auto Show once before, but only to test drive the Honda FCX, a fuel-cell car that I was reviewing for work. This time, I wandered among next year's factory models and future-looking concept cars, camera in hand, like a kid in a candy store.

As it turned out, the latest version of the FCX, the FCX Clarity, was the first car I came upon, and wow, what a difference five years had made! The car's looks had gone from clunky and nerdy to sleek and beautiful, and it even sported a tag labeling it one of four Cars of the Year for 2010. Though the FCX is available in California, it's still somewhat of a concept car, since very few people have the means to refuel these guys (they require liquid hydrogen, which isn't commonly available at your local rest stop). But it definitely looked like it was ready for prime time.

Speaking of concept cars, it seemed like there were relatively few, compared with the pictures I'd seen from years past. I asked one staffer whether there was a set area for concept cars, and she pointed me downstairs. On the bottom level, I again didn't see very many, so I asked another woman, who pointed me upstairs. I had to conclude that the auto industry decided to pare things down. As a car design aficionado, I was a bit disappointed, but I certainly understand their reasoning.

I will say, though, that of the actual production models available, I'd call two-thirds of them downright ugly. Even the really expensive ones looked hideously ostentatious (ostentatiously hideous?) with their gigantic grills and wacked out headlights. One of the bigger disappointments of the day, since it's from company I generally like, was the Volvo C30. I spotted one on the street for the first time last week, and seeing it up-close just confirmed that they are not pretty.

That said, there were plenty of beauties to behold. Small cars were in full force, whether it was new microcars like Smart's Fortwo series and the fantastic neon yellow Scion iQ (at right), or vintage models like the BMW Isetta and the Peel P50, the smallest production car ever made. And a few of the sportier sedans and coupes, including a trio of cherry red Audis, had me absolutely drooling. But I was a bit astounded to see just how many trucks and SUV's there still were, considering how few people actually buy them nowadays. I mean, there was a whole area just for Hummers. Seriously? Come on, GM, enough already. Haven't your lots full of Hummers that you can't sell taught you anything?

Anyway, with the throngs of people in attendance, it certainly appeared that the auto industry is nowhere near dead. The reps were very upbeat—although I did hear more than one reference to the current economy (and, let's face it, reps are paid to be upbeat). Perhaps most telling of the times is that someone at Volvo started following my Twitter feed after I tweeted that I was at the show. I'm not sure whether that's awesome or sad, but I guess it's where we are today.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

olympic dreams

While we're on the topic of women's baseball, I was floored this week to discover that the International Baseball Federation is going to add women's baseball to their bid to get the sport reinstated for the 2016 Olympic Games. Apparently the move comes after a deal could not be reached between the main baseball and women's softball organizations.

I'm personally thrilled at the prospect of seeing women playing baseball on the Olympic stage. If it's not already obvious, hardball is much different from softball in many ways. So it's great to see that women and girls may not always have to accept the softball option as a "comparable" sport. Despite the existence of plenty of independent leagues around the U.S., as well as an international-level tournament team, there isn't one cohesive program similar to the well-oiled machine that exists for boys and young men who aspire to play at a high level. Having the sport as an Olympic game would certainly help make women's baseball more popular and well-established.

It also makes financial and competitive sense for the International Olympic Committee to include women's baseball over women's softball. The United States women's softball program has absolutely dominated in Olympic play, which makes the sport a lot less interesting to watch. And if host cities have to build or procure the use of one baseball stadium instead of one baseball stadium and one softball stadium, it makes things a lot cheaper, too.

Of course, there's still a long way to go before either women's or men's baseball gets added to the current Olympic program; the decision will be made in October, and there are a number of other sports putting in bids to be added. (Honestly, if squash gets in, I will be almost as excited.) But I'm cautiously optimistic that this might actually happen sooner than pigs might fly, which, suffice it to say, is a departure from my previous assumptions. By the way, if you're on Facebook, you can join this group to voice your support.