Friday, April 04, 2008

The Month That Was - March 2008: It's starting to get warm. Well, warmer. We twice had brutal snowstorms after the vernal equinox, which really pisses people off. Seriously, if you don't live in the north, you can't imagine how tired everyone is of winter by this time. It was a cold and snowy winter and it didn't let up until the last second, but the flip side of being sick of winter is the rush you get when you finally realize it's over and you can breathe without your lungs freezing over. Your first hint that it is coming is when you leave work at 6pm and it's still light out. Then that first splash of green appears and you start making plans for summer activities. Then Mother Nature slaps you back with one final blizzard.

Oh well, this time it really is over. For sure. The Dairy Queen just reopened.

My Blue Heaven
Toob Notes
'Bout a Hundred Dollars
Luggage is the Enemy
Ain't So Bad
My Blue Heaven: Four nights in Key West probably deserves its own trip report, but I just don't have the energy at the moment. This being my third (and certainly not final) visit to the Conch Republic, I'm getting close to being knowledgeable enough to do some sort of guide in the future, but for now a few stray observations and pics will have to serve.

My big concern was that it was spring break time. I feared a pack of drunken frat boys may have turned Duvall St. into Bourbon St. Not to worry. Maybe it was because we arrived late Saturday night and so our active time span was Sunday through Tuesday, but for the most part Duvall Street was very subdued. Crowds picked up when the cruise ships were docked, but other than that, it seemed like any other time.

My second concern was getting in and out of Miami International. I had arrived a couple of days earlier and made a quick run across the state to Sarasota for family stuff. My plan was to dash back across Alligator Alley to pick up Miss Kate, HRH Miss Anna, and Anna's beau at MIA around dusk then make a nighttime dash to Key West. I was worried about traffic and construction around the airport. I was worried about maneuvering through the Keys in the dark. I needn't have worried. Everything went smoothly and we arrived a little before midnight.

We stayed at the Santa Maria Suites and I cannot recommend this place highly enough. Nicely styled, a sweet little pool area, nightly turn down service, they leave you with all manner of sweets in the room -- muffins, ice cream treats, a bottle of water or two -- all gratis. Friendly helpful staff. Big screen TVs in every room. Located just a block or so off the southern end of Duvall Street, maybe three or four blocks from the Southernmost Point. The more southerly shops and restaurants are an easy walk, getting all the way down to Mallory Square and back would be a full day's wander.

Sunday was set aside for exploring and getting our bearings; that and a good bit of pool time. By the time the sun started to drop we were on a sunset dinner cruise aboard the gaff-rigged schooner Liberty Clipper. This is a nice gentle little cruise out into the Gulf, and it really does involve actual sailing -- wind permitting. The food and drink was pretty standard, but the crew were very genial and the captain a bit of cut up. The sunset was exquisite. Highly recommended is the Liberty Clipper.

A smaller schooner sharing our wind and barreling toward the sun.
Amazing sunsets: 1, 2, 3, 4

The next day was going to be our big time on the water. We booked a day long "Power Adventure" through Sebago -- a major day tour outfitter on the island. The itinerary was to sail out to the coral reef to snorkel around for a while, then have lunch onboard, then sail back into the Gulf and tie up to a platform where we would get our chance at activities such as jet skiing and parasailing.

I'm going to have to label this process a disappointment. You sail out to the reef at which point you are given an area of about 40 square yards in which you are allowed to snorkel. The snorkel gear provided was awful, clearly designed for the bathtub -- you are given full coverage masks and then told not to breathe through your nose or you'll fog up the mask. Anti-fog spray? Sorry not available. I gave up on snorkeling and just swam around in the water for a while. But even just swimming around, they make you wear an annoying floatation vest. I'm lucky they didn't require a permission slip from my Mom. The best part of this segment was feeding a mean-looking three-and-a-half-foot long barracuda off the side of the boat.

My guess is you got about a half hour to forty-five minutes to snorkel and then it's everyone back in the boat to head into the Gulf. With the wind up, the sailing was a blast. The big catamaran sliced through the rollers drenching everyone on deck. I crawled up as close to the bow as possible to get deluged to full effect.

Next we tied up to a platform where there were a couple of jet skis waiting and a trampoline and a banana boat. We were divided into two groups: one starts on the jet skis and one goes parasailing, then we switch half way through. But parasailing got cancelled due to the high winds. And the jet skis -- well, you had a circle of about a hundred yard radius in which you were allowed to stay and your ride needed to be limited to 5 minutes or so. So as it turned out, there was actually very little to do. I was able to get in three separate 5-minute trips on the jet ski, by the last of which I had that 100-yard radius circle pretty well memorized. As a result, in the height of the afternoon everyone was flopped about on the boat getting badly sunburned (especially the fair Miss Anna) and wondering when we were going to head back to port and get on with our lives.

I can't recommend Sebago's Power Adventure. Even if the parasailing had been available, the whole process is too regimented. "Quickly now, have heavily monitored fun so we can rush somewhere else and have a different kind of heavily monitored fun." If you want to snorkel, arrange a leisurely snorkeling trip. If you want to parasail, catch a specialty boat in port for a longer ride. If you want to jet ski, find somewhere to rent jet skis on your own schedule. Give Sebago's Power Adventure a miss.

At least we were back in time to catch the famous sunset at Mallory Square, where the street performers turned out in full. The standout was Dominique and his trained cats. Dominique is a certified eccentric who in any other context would probably be locked in a padded room or living over a heating grate in a refrigerator box, but in Mallory Square he fits right in. His act is difficult to describe, but you can catch video snippets at YouTube and AOL. "Hurry up take your time!" is now a catch phrase among us.

The next day, our last full day, we had discussed going out on the water again, but I was in no condition for another day in the sun. Miss Anna was even worse. I felt bad about it, because I knew I should have tanned up before the trip but I just never got the chance -- lesson re-learned. As a result I had to leave the ferry to the Dry Tortugas on my to do list for the future. Instead, and perhaps to our benefit, Kate and I rented bikes and had our own little island safari.

Key West is not big and there are a variety of options for getting around. A car is bulky and expensive. Most folks opt for scooters or electric carts. But unless you are completely out of shape, I'd recommend a plain old bicycle. It's cheaper, can go anywhere, and you get exercise which means you're allowed an extra boat drink with dinner.

We trolled along the west end of the island, eventually making our way to Ft. Zachary State Park, which has the best beach on the island. Best is relative -- it isn't bad, although it seems like it's a bit on the rocky side. The fact is, there are really no great beaches on Key West. But the park itself is nice and wooded and sparsely decorated with odd sculptures and signs warning you to avoid attack turtles and scooter riding pelicans and so forth. From there we barreled back across town to the heart of residential Key West and rode pleasantly along the narrow, shady streets and through their crypt-laden cemetery.

Dog totem at Ft. Zack
Why ask Y?
Manatee mailbox
Sunset Key (a private island just off Key West)
A stately pelican
Key West Gothic
I wonder what goes on in there?

In his song Blue Heaven Rendezvous, Jimmy Buffet sings of Key West: "There's still some magic left in this tourist town." I have been all over Florida, up and down both coasts and all through the Mouse House. I have seen all the various ways in which Florida has imposed an orderly, commercial skin over its swampish innards, from St. Armand's Circle to South Beach. But Key West, while equally commercial, is more genuine and more organic. They put up the tawdry t-shirt shops and the tacky theme restaurants, but they don't bother trying to hide the oddballs and corner dives and local color. Jimmy's right. There's still plenty of magic to go around.
Toob Notes The Wire ended early in the month, and while it didn't end on a high -- this was the weakest season -- it was still the best show on TV. (No real spoilers follow, but I am assuming you watched the show.)

The proper theme of this season was fakery. Both the police (McNulty at first, then others) and the Sun reporter invest themselves in lies. These lies did not arise in a vacuum, however. McNulty spins his web in reaction to the lies of the city's governors in an effort to win the drug war which, as becomes clear, is itself mired in falsehoods. The reporter, in contrast, lies partially out of laziness and partially out of desperation, but the institutions surrounding him fully support him since it is to their benefit.

This season featured perhaps my favorite moments in the series. The FBI is called in to profile the serial killer, which the viewer knows to be a fiction created by McNulty. The camera stays on McNulty's face as the FBI agent describes the serial killer in terms that exactly fit McNulty personally. Flawless comedy. Also we got a lot of time on Lester Freemon, the Sherlock Holmes of the 'hood, who was probably my favorite character in the series. And we had a web of dependent, self-perpetuating lies so intricate that it became a thing of beauty in itself.

But there were big problems this year. There was an over abundance of cameos of previously featured characters and a mess of contrived "full-circle" finishes in an orgy of closure. Many of the characters seemed to become mere plot devices at the expense of their humanity. And, as much as they probably tried to avoid it, there was the sound of a grinding axe running in the background as the creative team eviscerated the newspaper industry from whence they sprung.

Meanwhile, in real life, creator David Simon took every opportunity to engage in barking political crackpottery to anyone who put a microphone in front of him, as if he was Barbra Streisand or something, culminating in an embarrassing berating of viewers and critics for "not getting" what he was trying to say. Poor David suffers the fate every other pseudo-great thinker in history -- he's so wise and insightful, yet must live in a world of blind, thoughtless rabble who cannot understand or appreciate him.

One of the enduring mysteries of art is that great works can be created by people anywhere on the spectrum of humanity -- young, old, weak, strong, good, evil. Clearly loudmouth crank falls somewhere on that spectrum because despite all Simon's ancillary nonsense, The Wire was a remarkable achievement. The core idea -- the story of a dying city as a Greek tragedy with institutions in the role of the gods was brilliantly conceived and beautifully realized.

If the The Sopranos was the last word in mob drama (except for the inevitable "courageous" film about two gay wiseguys) and Deadwood was the last word in westerns (except for the...oh, never mind), then The Wire will likely stand as the last word in cop shows. True to the theme, but so very much more. Time to move on to new paradigms.

And perhaps that is exactly what HBO has been trying to do, but with little success. In Treatment, a show which I came to late, just finished its first season and I have a sneaking feeling that's all it's going to get. The show was about people in therapy and the gimmick was that it ran each day of the week with a different patient on each day. It was decently done and the dialogue was never mawkish. The challenge was to hold a viewer's attention through a half-hour show that consisted almost entirely of a conversation between two or three people. In some ways it was reminiscent of classic TV drama from the fifties, when the actors and the dialogue had to carry the entire production. I wouldn't go out of my way to watch it again, but it was about as well done as that sort of thing could be.

Less successful is John Adams, a Tom Hanks' guided dramatization of the bestseller by David McCullough. This entire production comes off as little more than a retelling of key scenes from the book, no humanistic background added. Really, it is very sterile and quite aimless from a character point of view. A huge backslide from the superb Band of Brothers he did a few years back. Give it a miss.

Following HBO's lead, other networks are taking risks on more interesting projects. AMC followed up its excellent Mad Men (season 2 can't come soon enough for me) with Breaking Bad, about a high-school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with a nearly hopeless case of lung cancer and so takes up cooking meth with a sleezebag ex-student so as to have something to leave his family. Over time the motivation morphs into having enough money to pay for exceedingly expensive uninsured treatments in an effort to stay alive. At the close of the first season it is clearly heading towards a conflict where he is trying to make money to survive cancer and if he lives he will find himself to be a drug dealer, living on borrowed time. Good supporting cast of a ball-buster wife, a kleptomaniac sister-in-law, and a DEA agent brother-in-law leave open lots of possibilities. If these guys can keep the plotline tight, the direction fresh, and the conflicts uncontrived, Breaking Bad will continue to be a winner. Another season 2 I am anxiously awaiting. Well done AMC.

Dexter, from Showtime, is my most recent guilty pleasure. Dexter Morgan is a serial killer who only kills other murderers, who he has ready access to through his work as a forensic blood analyst for the Miami police. It has completed two seasons and I have been through both on-demand. While there were occasionally tedious back stories, it was very well done on the whole, and the acting and concept seemed to improve over time as everyone involved got into a groove.

I could tell you that it is really a thought-provoking parable about Man's need for morality and rules (the Code of Harry, in this case) to channel his dark, fallen nature into something good, but that might be a bit of a stretch. I'll stick with guilty pleasure for my purposes. During my viewing of both seasons, once I reached about the half way point I ended up so engrossed that I stayed up until about 3 AM to finish in marathon sessions. The following mornings were brutal. Dexter killed me.
'Bout a Hundred Dollars: I've been guzzling Diet Pepsi at an alarming rate to get Pepsi points to buy MP3s from Amazon. The problem is the only some MP3s are eligible. When I went to buy the latest Fountains of Wayne (Traffic and Weather -- awesome) I couldn't buy the whole album at once, I had to download each individual song. Can't complain if it's for free, I suppose. Thievery Corporation's Mirror Conspiracy wasn;t available on MP3 so I actually had to order the used CD. I also picked up Firesign Theatre's comedy classic from the sixties, Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers. The album consists of two tracks, one for each side and Amazon had them priced like individual song tracks -- 99 cents each; so I got the entire album for $1.98. (This is me high-fiving myself.)

Zune let me down for the first time. My latest CD purchase, The Avalanches' Since I Left You is gapless. That is to say, each track runs seamlessly into the next with no silence in between. Zune (the player, not the application) apparently doesn't support this, so as I listen I get an annoying instant of silence between each track. The Zune application does support gapless playback, so I'm hoping MS will update the player software also, eventually.

I'm generally very pleased with my music situation at the moment. I stumbled into something good with my $99 refurbished Zune. I snagged the Zune off Woot, the semi-famous, one-sale-item-per-day site, and since then I have been checking every day. Sure enough, another offer came up that I jumped on.

I have been looking for a cheap-ish point-and-shoot camera. My Nikon DLSR is still dear to my heart, but there are times when I just don't want to risk it -- like out on a wet and wild catamaran ride off Key West -- or lug it around, like an evening out with friends. Well, what should appear on Woot but a refurb'ed Kodak 10mp point and shoot for $99? That's perfect. I snagged one -- coffee colored, for no good reason. Now, if I lose it - oh well, I'm out a hundred bucks. Sad, but I'll live.

In fact, $100 seems to be about the sweet spot for gadgets in my life. My cell service is T-Mobile prepaid. I drop a hundred dollars up front and at .10/minute voice and .05/text message, it gets me through about six months. So my entire phone service costs me about $200 per year. I recently picked up a new cell phone when my five year old discontinued Siemens gave up the ghost. I got a keen-looking (I can say "keen", I'm old enough) Motorola RAZR on special for, yeah you guessed it, $99.

To you folks targeting spam, you now know the number that will get my attention.
Luggage is the Enemy: I was shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that many of the big airlines now allow only a single piece of checked luggage per passenger. That's checked luggage, not carry-ons. Although why I was shocked I don't know, since they seem to work so very hard at making flying as miserable an experience as possible.

I rarely need to check more than one bag, so it doesn't have a big effect on me directly, but what this is going to do is force people to stuff as much as they can into their carry-ons. Carry-on luggage is the single greatest impediment to efficiently boarding and exiting a plane at the gate. Some of the most pleasant flights I can remember were the ones I took shortly after the big "no liquids" policy went into effect. Passengers were forced to check through all their personal stuff, so they mostly said screw it, and just checked everything through. The overhead bins were half empty; everyone got to their seats with a minimum of fuss; fastest deplaning ever. Now we are going to get the opposite; it's going to take that much longer to get on and off the plane. Plus, everyone is going to try to scam the system by bringing a carry-on that is too big and then checking it at the gate in the hopes they won't get charged.

The claim is that extra piece of luggage is so expensive at the current cost of fuel that they have to charge for it. I call B.S. on that: prove it. Of the major carriers, it looks like Northwest, United and US Air have already switched to a one-bag policy for coach fliers. A second bag will cost $25, although it looks like Northwest is letting the frequent flier members skate on the second bag charge. American and Delta seem to still be letting 2 bags through for the time being.

Between the security environment, fuel costs, legal liability and their own monumentally stupid reactions to these things, I am amazed the airlines continue to function.

And speaking of luggage disasters, have you been following the chaos at Heathrow? 19,000 lost bags -- system failure -- sorting through them by hand. You can now play a Mario-esque baggage handling flash game. Surreal. It's enough to almost make you feel sorry for Naomi Campbell. (Ok, no it isn't. Not even almost.)
Ain't So Bad: And just to end on an high note for a change, I would like to point out how good things are.

If you spend any time reading the newspapers or watching CNN or wandering the Internet, you would think that we are on the verge of apocalypse; as if there was a race to see what tragedy will befall us first: financial, social, or environmental. In fact, on balance, the world is better off (especially here in Western civilization), than at any time in history and there is no reason to expect it won't get better. But you can't tell people that. The loudmouths of the world are so wholly invested in doom and dire predictions that they will take grave offense and protest indignantly.

Personally, I find this confounding. I can only assume it is because they don't have enough drama or interest in their personal lives so they make some up to fill the hole. Or perhaps they do it as a way to make themselves feel that their problems are not their own fault but stem from the curse of living in these horrible times.

Anyway, if you are one of those folks who is all end-is-nigh, you might gain some insight into why you feel that way by reading Journalist Bites Reailty, Steve Salerno's brilliant exposition on why the media is so deeply invested in the horrific. Then you may want to pause and consider how lucky you really are to live now.