Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Month That Was - May 2008

The Month That Was - May 2008: I managed to knock off one of the trips from my list for 2008 (previously), specifically: Newfoundland. I just returned from ten days of exploration of that far-off and have copious notes and many hundreds of photos, but it's going to take me a while to get it all together. Coming next month.

Also, I finished Tender is the Night, then spend a couple of days obsessively thinking about it -- it's that kind of book. I have lots of thoughts and opinions, but I haven't had a chance to sort them into something presentable. Maybe next month we'll do a big reading roundup too.

A couple of quick site housekeeping notes: 1) Clicking on the links to individual posts should now take you to a page with that post alone on it, whereas previously it just took you to the month's post and positioned you as near the post you selected as it could. 2) The RSS feed title should now be the same as the post title. It gets duplicated since the first words of the post are the title, but it's better than (title unknown). Both these changes are from now going-forward, unless I find a clever way to reto fit them without going through every post in the past five years.

Hooray Bikes!
To Serve (a) Man
Flick Notes
Music Appreciation
Music Unappreciated
Michigan Life Imitates Cable TV
Howl of Tom Wolfe
Stop Killing Hitler

Hooray Bikes!

Hooray Bikes!: That's what the sign says on the street outside one of the local bike shops, Great Lakes Cycling. You see, I bought a bike. It is my intent to get more outside exercise this summer. I looked at a review in Outside magazine and they identified the Schwinn Le Tour as a top notch entry level road bike -- by that they mean inexpensive but with quality components. A web search quickly revealed to me that the best price was to be had by ordering online from Nashbar via Amazon. Cool so far.

The bike arrived boxed and unassembled, as expected. On the outside of the box there was a list of the tools that would be required to assemble it. A set of metric box wrenches, various screwdrivers, and a few sizes of hex wrenches. No problem, I had all that stuff. So one afternoon I set out to put the thing together. Problem: there were no assembly instructions. Each component (crankset, handlebars, seats, brakes, etc.) came with a detailed manual about how to use it but not how to attach it to the frame. The bike itself came with an owner's manual that suggested I always ride with a helmet, and other anti-liability information, but no "insert part a into slot b and tighten" directions. It took me about 15 seconds to realize there was no way I would be able to just figure it out. Apparently assembling a bike is something you can only do if you already know how to assemble a bike. Thus, the call was placed to Great Lakes Cycling and arrangements were made for assembly and a "fitting".

One week later, I stood by as a very bike-ish dude attached my now fully assembled bike to a trainer (kind of like a treadmill for bikes) and told me to get on and start pedaling and he would commence with the fitting. I had expected that he would take some quick measurements and make some adjustments and send me on my way. Forty-five minutes later, with me nice and sweaty and out of breath, we finally decided that the bike fit. Let's just say it was a very thorough fitting. But I was proud of myself for not letting the bike-ish dude get the best of me -- I pedaled right on through without a complaint.

I have since purchased a trunk rack so I can safely transport the thing wherever. Now I need to invest in a lock, a set of clipless pedals, and, most annoyingly, a helmet.

My problems with helmets are twofold. First, there is no human being on Earth, however self-possessed, that does not look like he is on the way home from special ed. when wearing a bike helmet. I am absolutely dumbfounded that, in a world where fashion and coolness are prized above all else, bike helmets even exist. I would gladly invest in any company that comes up with a way to make a non-dorky-looking bike helmet. That would be found money.

Second, and more importantly, as a child I rode around many, many miles in the most rambunctious, irresponsible way imaginable, all without a helmet and all without injury. Suddenly I have a moral obligation to wear a helmet? My life is in jeopardy if I don't? I'm a mortal lock for brain damage? When did the world turn into a nervous old lady? I may be 47, but I'm still a boy, you know.

I am resigned to buying a helmet because a dear friend of mine, who will likely be a riding partner, has told me she will not permit me to ride without one and that, in fact, there are some places where you can get a ticket (presumably from a cop on a bike) for doing what you did every day when you were nine years old.

The older I get the more clearly I see that this is not my world anymore. It's moved past me, or at least, gone off in a different direction. Oh well; at least I get to bitch about it.

So, yeah, I have a new bike.

To Serve (a) Man

To Serve (a) Man: Customer service observations...

The coolest thing about flying Air Canada is that they have in-seat entertainment systems in coach. It's like having your own personal a miniature version of On-Demand. Very cool. (I watched Cloverfield -- discussed below). Awesome way to pass the time. Also the seats seemed cushy and comfortable and had a reasonable amount of legroom for coach. I'm liking Air Canada. Good on ya, Canucks.

Contrast that to American Airlines which has just announced that they are going to charge for every checked bag. If you fly American Airlines your checked baggage allowance has gone from 2 to 0 in less than a year. This means boarding the plane will become an eleven letter word beginning with 'cluster' as everyone tries to wedge as much as they can into the overheads and under the seats to save money. American has officially ceased to be a serious airline. They may survive, and perhaps eventually turn a profit, but they should be deeply ashamed at the course they have taken. Two-bit is the best description for them.

Eddie Bauer, on the other hand, just got me as a loyal customer for life. While in Newfoundland I found myself in dire need of a windbreaker/rain jacket. So I stopped in the Eddie Bauer in St. John's and picked one up for $69. In the course of my trip -- actually in the Toronto airport on the way home -- the breast pocket zipper got snagged and pulled right off. After cursing the hateful universe for my fate, I figured I'd just stop in the local Eddie Bauer in Ann Arbor to see if they had a repair service. They don't, but they replaced the jacket on the spot, no questions asked, and even gave me a refund for the price difference of $25 (it was way cheaper here at home). Amazing. I walked in hoping to not pay too much for a repair, and I walked out with a completely new jacket and $25 in my pocket. And they will win in the long run, because Eddie is going to get my default business for just about any products they may carry from now on.

Flick Notes

Flick Notes: I actually watched two complete movies this month, which is rare. First was Rocky Balboa, the sixth installment of the saga of the Stallion. I was careful not to say "sixth and final" because I'm holding out hope for a Rocky VII wherein he fights the cold-hearted retirement home head nurse to a heroic and inspirational draw. In truth I must say that I thought Rocky Balboa was a decent film. Here's the thing about Stallone: in the right situation, he can act extremely well. Go back and watch the original Rocky. Stallone did a helluva job with that character. No, playing Rocky Balboa doesn't involve the same level of challenges as playing King Lear, but Stallone got three dimensions and lot of humanity out of a brain dead palooka. Then, regrettably, came the sequels.

In Rocky Balboa you get flashes of that affecting, original-Rocky Stallone. The plot involves Rocky feeling the need to fight one more time in the face of loss and loneliness over the death of Adrian and also some frustration over the distance his now adult son is keeping from him. There is a terrific scene where these feelings come to the surface during a conversation with Paulie, moving Rocky to the point of tears, and Stallone pulls it off just like in the old days.

The fight itself is somewhat an anti-climax. The circumstances are contrived and the outcome exactly as expected. Luckily, it's only a small part of the film. Rocky Balboa is worth a look and might give you a good idea why Stallone is still around, both in the artistic and commercial sense. Even old and worn out in a ludicrous situation you still gotta root for Rocky. In the same vein, I'm really hoping that even at this late stage, Stallone finds a role that will let him show what he can do again.

Cloverfield is intense. So much so that I was riveted even though I was watching it on the el cheapo four-inch LCD screen wedged in the back of the seat in front of me on an Air Canada jet from St. John's, Newfoundland to Toronto. In terms of tension, Cloverfield is awesome. The problem is that tension is really all there is. It's an exercise in "can't-look-away-ness".

I feel silly describing the plots of movies since by the time I see them they have pretty much slid into the backlist on Netflix and everyone else is reciting dialogue, but for the sake of good form Cloverfield is a about a big scary monster devouring Manhattan. Armed with nothing but a handheld video camera, a frightened band of painfully arch hipsters journey from somewhere near the financial district all the way to midtown to rescue a friend who has been trapped in a collapsing building while scary monster attacks loom around every corner.

Cloverfield is effectively The Blair Witch Project scaled up. That's not a slam. It's really the first non-gimmicky enhancement to the successful first person webcam paradigm that Blair Witch started. And it's an effective technique in this setting. But that's all it is. I really had no interest in the characters involved in the search. And the plot is, presumably intentionally, empty and unresolved. There is nothing more than the search and rescue and then that's it. I don't think I'm spoiling too much by saying that in the end, there is no resolution of any sort.

You could draw any number of thematic connections to any number of current events here. Seriously, name your socio-political hobby horse and you can make Cloverfield a metaphor for it. I'll pass on the exercise in self-validation, and if you choose to also, what you are left with is a cleverly conceived and exquisitely produced mega-chase without much of a human story. Fun to watch -- more so than most other thrillers -- but ultimately hollow and unsatisfying.

Music Appreciation

Music Appreciation: My appreciation of Classical music is fairly stunted. I know the basics -- Beethoven Symphonies, Mozart Concertos, etc. And I know enough to know I like Bach above everyone (I have the Gould's Goldbergs, Tureck's Well-Tempered Clavier, and Orch. of the Enlightenment's Brandenbergs, and Julliard String Quartet's Art of the Fugue -- all on my Zune). Beyond that, I'm pathetic. Over the course of the month I stumbled on a couple of articles that caused me to wonder if any classical had even been created in my lifetime, 'cause I sure couldn't name anything.

Well the first idea that came up was that Classical music as an accessible product now exists almost solely for film scores. Certainly, I'd heard of John Williams, hadn't I? But there are many others: Bernard Herrmann scored numerous Hitchcock flicks among others, Enrico Morricone did the Clint Eastwood Westerns among others, Aaron Copland did some astounding work for film, but that was a bit before my lifetime. I just never made the connection in my brain that I was hearing modern Classical music. So there you go.

But of non-film based classical music one CD consistently showed up on recommended lists far and wide: Steven Reich's Different Trains. So I snagged a copy. It is absolutely mesmerizing. Different Trains uses a string quartet wherein the different instruments repeat a melody based on a spoken phrase that is related to train travel. The actual spoken phrases are interwoven with the melodies played on the instruments. The work is divided into three movements 1) America-before the war, 2) Europe-during the war, and 3) After the war. The phrases, and even the speakers, are connected to those time periods. It is virtually impossible to describe this work, other than to say it works very well and it is a remarkably appropriate and coherent use of sampling, which is rare in Classical works.

But it does beg the question, what makes this Classical music? Given the use of sampling why is this not considered some variation of the Electronica or Ambient genres. It uses sampled spoken words, sound effects and standard instrumentation in combination. It certainly eschews what might be considered traditional musical formats. How does this become classical music as opposed to, say, avant-garde electronica. I don't know? I don't doubt that there is a reason, which may be beyond my musical understanding. I'd just be curious to know what it is.

Fabulous piece of music, whatever it is.

Different Trains is usually combined on CD with another work, Electric Counterpoint, which is also quite beautiful. A looping mesh of guitars; bass and tenor, live and sampled. Also recommended.

P.S. Microsoft came through with an update to the Zune player software that allows for gapless playback (see last month's complaint), which is needed to for these pieces. Great timing MS!

Music Unappreciated

Music Unappreciated: While we are on the topic of my musical confusion. Three bands that have enormous and loyal followings, but I can't stand:

  • U2 -- Boy came out in, what was it, '79? '80? I remember listening to it in my fraternity and finding no attraction whatsoever. Now nearly thirty years later, Bono is rich and obnoxious beyond any rock star's dreams but my feelings haven't changed. Every song of theirs I've heard over the years sounds utterly conventional and soulless to my ears.

  • Radiohead -- OK, Computer is often spoken of as one of the greatest albums ever. I can't even force myself to listen to the previews of the songs on Amazon. It just sounds so dreary to me. But its success spawned a tidal wave of equally dreary "alt rock" that completely dominated the airwaves in the '90s and early '00s. I suppose I should thank them and their spawn for driving me to the loving arms of Sirius.

  • Dave Matthews -- This guy has an enormous live following, on the same scale as the Grateful Dead in their heyday. I really can't explain why I don't like Dave Matthews except to say his voice and lyrics make me think (irrationally, perhaps) of a perfect, sensitive hipster. I bet this is what the folks from Cloverfield listened to. Makes me press seek.

Michigan Life Imitates Cable TV

Michigan Life Imitates Cable TV: For the past few months I have been making snide comments about how closely Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's scandals mirror something that would go on in The Wire. Now we have a new story.

Out near me in Ann Arbor, a civilian clerk at the Ann Arbor police department has been righteously busted:
[H]er co-workers were stunned to learn the popular employee's Hamburg Township home was raided, where authorities say they found 30 pounds of marijuana, more than 40 pot plants and guns.
"Sometimes, people have double lives,'' said Jones, who added he had a "cry out'' in his office with many of Hamell's co-workers when the news broke. "We are still stunned. ... People want to know, 'Why?'''

Well, I'll give you two reasons. 1) The money. 2) She thought Weeds was an instructional video. (Although why this would be a cry-out and not a laugh-out escapes me.)

Now all we need is a serial killer in Flint who only kills murderers or a Grand Rapids mob boss who is in therapy and our lives here will be complete.

Howl of Tom Wolfe

Howl of Tom Wolfe: A five part video interview with Tom Wolfe (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I happen to think Tom Wolfe is the finest cultural commentator we have; although that's not saying much, he is likely the only one that matters. He's the only one I know of who doesn't walk in lock step with one op-ed ideology or another and one who actually does his research and reporting rather than just scan the zeitgeist. Here's the money quote: "The biggest problem is all the people who see a problem. It's very fashionable to think that the end is near."

Stop Killing Hitler

Stop Killing Hitler: Just for pure laughs, if you have ever been involved with any online communities or discussion forums you will crack-up over this piece about going back in time to kill Hitler. It's perfect.