Racing home to the Mexican National Anthem

While one can’t go home again, sometimes it’s nice to visit. My semi-annual return to Southern California this week was filled with great time with family, seeking out new experiences and reliving fond memories. Turning on the radio on my way home from the train station tonight sent me back to my college years, more than 14 years past.

I first tuned into KPBS, but after a minute of their evening classical programming, I spun the proverbial dial to 91X (XETRA 91.1). The last few minutes of their “Loudspeaker” program reminded me of San Diego’s local music scene, which I only was able to sample briefly after college before I moved away. I was a little surprised to hear what sounded like profanity during one of the songs, but I quickly reminded myself that 91X broadcasts from Tijuana into San Diego.

I was served another reminder of 91X’s cross-border origin when the disc jockey announced that regular programming would be interrupted for “The Mexican National Hour,” which typically airs on Sunday evenings.

I was surprised by what I heard. The Spanish-language “La Hora Nacional” sounded much better than it did 15 years ago. Back in the day, the show sounded like it was initially recorded in an empty gym and relayed to local station via shortwave before it was played back on 91X on a shoddy, beat-up tape. It sounded echo-y and awful, and I would quickly turn to another channel until the alternative music returned (or “Loveline,” but that was a different time).

Although I was only able to understand a portion of the show (show archive), the current “La Hora Nacional” sounded reasonably entertaining (for a 77-year-old government-produced program geared to promote national unity among other things). It featured an upbeat set of hosts discussing a variety of topics. It is something I may seek out and listen to later.

Hearing “La Hora Nacional” brought back other memories of listening to 91X in college. After studying late at the library, I would often be on the road home at midnight when the station was obligated to play the Mexican National Anthem (conveniently and simply named “Himno Nacional Mexicano”). I don’t why the station chose the version it did, but they would play an instrumental version of the song that lasted about four minutes. One of the TV stations broadcast a version that featured children singing, but the radio version was about four minutes of the anthem melody repeating over and over until you thought it was finished and then it would repeat a couple more times.

The song isn’t quite an earworm, but it was fascinating listening to it to see how many times the melody would repeat. It also became a bit of a challenge for me to see how far I could drive while the anthem played. I joked I could get home without speeding in the time it took for the song to play, but I never made it.

Since I moved away from San Diego, I would occasionally try to tune in for the Mexican National Anthem, but 91X only plays it over the air and not on their Internet streams. I was finally able to tune in for the nightly event about a year ago, but it was a bit different and shorter than in years past.

As someone who has loved radio for decades, I get a kick out of the tradition of U.S. stations playing a patriotic song as they signed off, or signed on, for the day. It is something that has definitely gone by the wayside (unless you’re Adult Swim and air an off-kilter sign-off).

While U.S. stations moved away from the sign-off tradition, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. still started and ended its broadcast day with “O Canada,” during the years I lived in Michigan. The CBC has since started broadcasting around the clock, so it too has ended this tradition.

The version of “O Canada” that I saw was an elaborate production with a bold orchestral arrangement of the song set against a wide array of images evoking the Great White North and its diverse population (YouTube video posted by eastest566). It’s something I still enjoy seeing and listening to years later — even the cheesy prelude segment about how essential the CBC is.

In the years since I’ve become a volunteer DJ, I taken to keeping the tradition alive in a small way. Since my weekly program ends at midnight, I nearly always end with a jazzy performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I certainly don’t do the specific jargon one uses when actually ending the broadcasting day (because I’m not), but I like to end with Duke Ellington’s take on the National Anthem although I sometimes switch to versions by Bonerama or Branford Marsalis and Bruce Hornsby.

Who knows? Maybe there’s someone in a car listening to my show trying to see how far they can get by the time the song’s over.

The night I nearly tripped over Tony Gwynn

A mourner looks up at the Tony Gwynn "Mr. Padre" statue outside Petco Park Monday, June 16, 2014, in San Diego. Gwynn, an eight time National League batting champion and a member of Baseball Hall of Fame, died Monday from cancer. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

A mourner looks up at the Tony Gwynn “Mr. Padre” statue outside Petco Park on Monday, June 16, 2014, in San Diego. Gwynn, an eight-time National League batting champion and a member of Baseball Hall of Fame, died Monday from cancer. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

I’m still in shock that Tony Gwynn has died. He was one of those icons you thought would live for decades, sort of like fellow slugger Ted Williams, but Gwynn left us at age 54 after battling salivary-gland cancer. Gwynn’s presence loomed large over baseball and San Diego, yet he seemed like one of the nicest, most relatable people around.

That was certainly true one day late in the 1997 season when I almost tripped over him.

It was the San Diego Padres’ last homestand of the season. I was working as co-news editor of the UCSD Guardian when we heard Chancellor Robert Dynes was going to throw out the first pitch that night (IIRC, it would’ve been the Wednesday, Sept. 17 game against the Colorado Rockies).

We thought it would make for a decent photo, but our photo editor had other assignments. We were on deadline, but I called for a press pass and headed for Qualcomm Stadium after grabbing a camera.

By the time I found parking (in the VIP area!) and got into the stadium, I was starting to run a bit late. After riding in a cramped and creaky old elevator to field level, I jogged down the tunnel toward the field where I was directed.

As I made my way through the cold, grey corridor, I started going a bit faster before I realized the tunnel had a slight downward slope.

I was going faster, faster and then I suddenly saw a player sitting on the floor, lacing up his shoes. If I didn’t do something, I would’ve crashed into him. I felt I couldn’t stop safely so I kind of skip-hopped to the right.

As I passed him, I heard a kind voice saying something like, “Woah, slow down there buddy” with a little chuckle.

It was Tony Gwynn.

I’m pretty sure it was him, although I passed by in a blur. I shouted out “Sorry, sir” and continued toward the field. I was able to get to the photographers’ area near the dugout with just a few moments to spare before Dynes threw out the first pitch (with three other people — it was Community Day or something).

The photo didn’t run — it was double-exposed somehow.

As I’ve retold the story over the years, I’m deeply thankful that I didn’t run into him. I would’ve been horrified if Gwynn was somehow injured because of my actions. Also, in hindsight, I appreciated his polite response, other people may have not reacted so well to such an interruption.

That was my only near-encounter with Gwynn. It would’ve been great to have known him better and to share some firsthand encounters like Keith Olbermann (video).

At the same time, nearly every San Diegan who was around during Gwynn’s 20-year career knew him in some fashion and his death leaves a hole in the city’s psyche. Even when the Padres were in the dumps (as they were in 1997), San Diegans could always look to Tony Gwynn — I had to check, but he won his final of eight National League batting titles in 1997.

After Gwynn retired, he remained a fixture of the San Diego community, coaching the San Diego State University baseball team. He was also a subtle, yet well-regarded presence in the north San Diego County city of Poway where he lived (one of my sisters has stories of trick-or-treating at his house).

To be sure, Gwynn was a great baseball player and one of the greatest hitters of all time. When I look back, I’ll recall those performances and remember his dedication, persistence and enthusiasm at both sport and life.

R.I.P., Tony.

Secret Shame: Never been to Comic-Con

Every so often, I delve into my drawer of “Secret Shames” — some deep, dark, pop-culture secret that I’m not too proud of. This latest secret shame deals with one of the largest pop-culture events of the year — the San Diego Comic-Con.

The 40th edition of the event recently ended and, for the umpteenth time in a row, I wished I could’ve been there. In recent years, it’s become a huge event that went beyond its comic book origins as Hollywood studios slowly realized the convention’s potential.

While I’m modestly interested in comic book, I would’ve definitely wanted to check out panels for many of my favorite TV shows, including “Battlestar Galactica” and “Chuck.” There were “Battlestar Galactica” concerts at the House of Blues.

Yes, there are people dressed up as their favorite characters. While it’s not my thing to dress up, I can appreciate the work of many of the costumes.

Missing Comic-Con wouldn’t be such a big deal if I hadn’t lived in San Diego for nearly seven years. What’s worse, I don’t think I knew much about it while I lived there.

The only convention I went to in San Diego was a “Star Trek” gathering at Golden Hall. It’s like riding a Merry-Go-Round when Disneyland is around the corner.

In the years since I left San Diego, I’ve never been able to time a vacation to go down there for Comic-Con. Also, I think if I wanted to go, there might be a problem getting passes — as the event has grown, the passes have become more elusive.

Luckily, Comic-Con puts on a smaller affair in San Francisco every February called WonderCon. I’ve been able to make two of those and had a great time each year.

Hopefully, I can catch the 41st Comic-Con next year and put this secret shame to rest.

The best karaoke place in San Diego

Just to pick up on my post from last week, I have a _much, much_ better time at the second San Diego karaoke place I sang at.

After my 10-year reunion on Aug. 19, I drove around the corner from Shelter Point and pulled into the Captain’s Catch inside of a Ramada Limited. It was getting late in the evening, but I was able to sing TWO songs.

Sure the place wasn’t very crowded and the book was just all right, but people seemed to appreciate my music selection and were digging it. I sang Cake’s “Never There” and Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.”

So, in my limited opinion, Captain’s Catch is the “best” karaoke bar in San Diego. Even if it’s not, it’s a million times better than the Lamplighter.

Shakedown – Aug. 19

SAN DIEGO — I’ll expand on this latter, but there were several things that detracted from the enjoyment of my night on the town Friday. These are just niggles and didn’t take too much from my night.

— While attempting to buy tickets online for Friday’s Padres game, the site wanted to charge me $6.50 in fees … for a $12 ticket. That seemed a little too steep for me. Luckily I was able to buy the tickets for no added mark-up at the stadium ticket booth. Used the saved money to buy a program.

— I spent nearly 3 hours at San Diego’s “best” karaoke spot, The Lamplighter, and didn’t get to sing once. Apparently the KJ lets anyone who “tips” him a sufficient amount to go ahead of others. I wasn’t going to play that game — especially after paying a $5 cover — and thus didn’t get to sing (which was going to be “Shakedown”). After all, tips are gratuity and what did I have at that point to be grateful for? Zilch.

While I didn’t pay, the person before me did and sang an hour after signing up (“Bohemian Rhapsody”). I had dinner at ‘bertos instead.

It frustrated me because I shouldn’t have to pay to sing (and I don’t in Chico). From a different perspective, I _do_ pay to sing. I paid the cover charge (for karaoke) plus two beverages and tips.

I’m sure it’s all water under the bridge for the bar. My complaint isn’t a new one and I’m sure the bar keeps running with those people willing to pay or those who are satisfied nonetheless.

However, I hearby challenge the designation of The Lamplighter as “the best” as ranked by several local publications. The KJ has a great book and the bar’s pretty nice, but  I have no desire to return after my experience and would tell my friends the same. Karaoke at El Torito is probably a better time.

Shooting Stars

Editor’s note: This essay was published on an earlier incarnation of this site, but didn’t make the transition for some reason. I’ve re-created it here, but I don’t recall exactly when it was published — aside from “Nov. 1998.” — RTO

Beauty isn’t skin deep

Nov. 1998.

Sometimes the best things in life are those that are inexpensive and simple. When you consider it, what is more worthwhile, a walk in the park with the sun setting behind the mountains or seeing what dribble television network officials smear across your boob tube screen.

I saw one of the most beautiful things last month when I drove for 45 minutes up into the mountains of San Diego County to witness the Leonid meteor shower. I had been disappointed that I had never seen a meteor shower in person. My love of space is deep — springing forth from tomes of science fiction and the stories of real space exploration. In the fourth grade, I was proud member of the Young Astronauts club. In the tenth grade, I brought a viewer to witness the last total solar eclipse in North America during my lunch period. To witness a meteor storm would be terrific.

My evening got off to a late start — I was doing some late research in the library. It was after midnight when I left campus to join some friends that had already left.

I was worried about the weather. Forecasts said that the viewing in Southern California would be poor. As I approached the foothills I grew worried — an inland fog had settled in. If the fog stayed, there would be no way of seeing the showers. My fears were unfounded as my car broke through the fog as we ascended the hills and I could see the stars with a clarity that I could never see in the city. At long last, I finally reached the peak of the hillside.

I got off the interstate and proceeded to drive along the winding road that lead to the peak of the mountain. I was astounded by how many people were in the turnouts of the road — there seemed to be dozens of cars. I entered the Cleveland National Forest and saw another surprise — there are honest-to-God forests in San Diego County. Tall, glorious trees lined along the road with their leaves scattered in my path. I could pretend for an instant that I was driving on a backroad in Georgia, Utah or Colorado.

Not long after my discover of trees, I saw my first meteor. The meteor blazed across the sky right above the road that I was driving on. It looked very much like brilliant fireworks streaming in the sky. I couldn’t wait to pull off of the road to see more. My search for my friends was in vain, I kept driving until I realized that I had gone too far. I turned back and made a hasty dash back towards the interstate so that I could view the peak of the show. All the while I could catch glimpses of the meteors streaming across the sky. One meteor seemed to race alongside of my car.

Before long, I had reached the largest turnout. I pulled in, careful to turn off my headlights so that I wouldn’t disturb the viewing of those that had been there for hours. I got out of my car so that I could take in a total view of the night sky. Almost immediately, I realized that my T-shirt and jean shorts were going to do little to keep the cold away from me. It was really cold, but I soon grew accustomed to the mountainous climes.

At first I wandered around alone gazing at the black sky set afire with the light of a trillion stars. The shooting stars would speed through the sky every thirty seconds. Even though each individual meteor was a different size, they all looked like miniature comets spending their last instant suspended in the air. As I stood in the crisp cool mountain air, I craned my neck so that I could scan the sky. More than once I wished that I could see the entire expanse of the sky, but the view I had was enough. I could see the vast expanse of the Milky Way Galaxy spread across the sky. I could see the Big Dipper hiding behind the summit of the mountain and the moon hanging high.

Eventually, I came around to some people trying to take photographs of the night sky. The people I talked to were very polite, probably because everyone that spent the night in the mountains had something in common — they were crazy enough to be awake at two in the morning to see a meteor storm. While I was talking to these people, I saw the greatest meteor of the evening. The meteor created a flash that made everyone pause. The meteor skipped across the sky flaring like strobe light and left a brilliant light path in its wake. I could almost hear the sound of the meteor as it crashed into the atmosphere. I could hear the people near their cars ooh, aah and cheer as if this were similar to a baseball game in a stadium. The people with the cameras quickly shifted to try and catch a glimpse of the now-departed rock. Despite all of the fun, I had to tear myself away — I needed to go back to school so that I could work early that morning.

Even though I was completely satisfied with the show that morning, there was still one more spectacle in store. I was driving home on Interstate 5 from UCSD that Friday night, I could see one last shooting star fire through the sky pushing past the thick blanket of cold impersonal city lights. As I drove on, I quietly whispered aloud the old children’s wishing poem “I wish I may, I wish I might, See the first star in the sky tonight…” When I reached the wishing part of the poem, I trailed off into silence with a sigh. I thought of all my dreams and wishes and yet not resolving to choose merely one for that long-gone shooting star.