Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Month That Was - November 2009

The Month That Was - November 2009: Boy, am I late this month. That's because of all the travel. I cruised through warmer climes then did my annual Turkey-day pilgrimage to Vegas. Both trips are described below, sans photos. Travel went up the very end of the month and it will still be some time before I have prepped all the photos I took. If I get them done before the end of the month I'll update the posts, otherwise next month for sure. This leaves me with one last trip left this year, something as yet unplanned for the Christmas/New Year timeframe. Funny, earlier in the year I fretted that I would not get anywhere.

The past couple of months have been short on Book Looks and long on Detroit slams. I'm afraid that continues this month. I've been reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and I'm not quite done (it's really six novellas in one, which is to say: it's long). I'll have quite a bit to say about it next month, but for now it gets a qualified recommendation. Qualified, because a) I haven't finished it, and b) I don't like to give Boolean thumbs up or down. I would rather try to identify what type of person might like to read the books I discuss. This one will take some significant nuance, but I feel safe expressing a broadly positive judgment.

And yes, I will slam Detroit one more time, mostly because a couple of articles worthy of note came up this month. I vow, barring extreme events, that I will not slam Detroit for December -- Christmas spirit, and so forth.

[Travel] Sailing to Mexico, Sort of
[Travel] Home for Thanksgiving
[Travel] See the U.S.A.
[Detroit] Worse? How Could it be Worse? Jehovah!
[TV] Men, Slightly Less Mad

[Travel] Sailing to Mexico, Sort Of

Sailing to Mexico, Sort Of: [[update: Tulum photos and Delray Beach photos now available]]

Well, not actually sailing. More like staying at a floating resort hotel in the Caribbean. And Mexico in name only and for but a few hours. Still: my first cruise. I have always been marginally negative regarding cruises. My reasons were three fold: 1) I usually travel alone. Cruises, like most packaged travel, are designed for couples. There is a premium for the solo traveler and that makes me feel as though I am being punished. 2) They are more expensive than they advertise. I find the strategic nickel-and-diming in the travel industry to be tawdry, and cruises with their captive audience are prime examples. Not that they are rapacious, but the whole giving you a fixed price then nailing you for extras offends my hopelessly middle-class frugality. 3) You only get a few hours in port. Typically you dock in the early AM and embark in the early PM. If you pull into an interesting place, you have little chance to get a feel for it. You have no chance to look around and figure out what's good, what's bad, what works, what doesn't. So you end up taking a packaged excursion, or shopping in the chinchy portside shop and drinking in the tacky portside bars.

Having now been on a cruise I see other limitations. Obviously you won't be residing in any sort of luxury dwellings. The staterooms are nicely done but cramped (it's a boat after all) -- this ain't a suite at the Mandarin Oriental. The pools are small, and crowded. The spa facilities are small and limited. The all-inclusive eating is decent and the specialty restaurants (extra cost, of course) can be very good, but availability is a question. The bars are plentiful, but rather pedestrian in quality; I ordered an Old Fashioned and got bourbon awash in maraschino cherry juice. The larger point is that while they certainly have everything and some of it is good -- none of it is truly great. You will not get pampered like you would at Canyon Ranch. You will not eat like the Vegas Strip. You will not have Manhattan-level night-life. And you will not get any sort of genuine appreciation of a destination, unless you count the boat as a foreign country.

But then, that's kind of the point. You don't get anything great, but you do get everything. You don't have to worry losing your wallet, dealing with potentially surly natives, arranging safe transportation, Montezuma's revenge. The risk is basically eliminated. That's nice. Very nice. It's especially nice if you get two weeks vacation a year and, though you may miss out on the chance of truly great experience, it's more important to be assured not wasting your limited time off on a bad trip. It means it works well for frenetic families who aren't going to have a chance to fall into the local rhythms anyway and would prefer not to worry about constantly keeping the kids on a leash. It also works for older travelers who are less mobile and, not to put a fine point on it, more easily flustered. (On this cruise, folks in their 40s qualified as youthful.)

So, I am now OK with cruising as a concept. I would do it again. I would not, I think, do it alone. It's geared for groups of two or more, there is no denying that. And since I am not immobile or easily flustered, I think I could do better on my own. But in the company of others, as I was for this cruise, I would do it in a heartbeat.

Kicking off from Ft. Lauderdale (I will get to Ft. L shortly), this was, in cruise lingo, a four-day Western Caribbean cruise: Set sail from Ft. L Thursday night, Friday at sea, Saturday in port at Cozumel, Sunday at sea, disembark Monday AM back in Ft. L.

The days at sea were about what you'd expect. Roll out of bed. Snag some breakfast of the buffet, then down to the pool to read or swim or work on one's tan. A light lunch. An afternoon nap or, in my case, an extended session at the bar, the group I was with being essentially a pack of high functioning alcoholics. Dinner. Night caps. Back to bed with the balcony door open to sleep to the real life wave machine. One night was a formal night, and I was looking all James Bond in my formalwear. Good times. No pressure.

You are provided with a menu of what must be 50 options for planned shore excursions on port days. Based on internet research and my desire for photography opportunities I chose to take a trip to the Mayan Ruins at Tulum, which also included some swimming time at a nearby private beach club. Much of this excursion was taken up with ancillary transportation. From the dock in Cozumel, take the ferry to Playa Del Carmen on the mainland (30 mins), then a bus ride to the ruins (40 mins). Along the way goods are hawked, naturally. Not hard sell in your face; polite, but pretty much constant. Folks will be pushing hats, sunglasses and trinkets pretty much everywhere. (In my case that was good because I needed a hat and sunglasses.) On the bus we were offered an opportunity to buy an official Mayan birth certificate for $20. At the entrance to the ruins the bathrooms are strategically located inside a jewelry shop where your group will be given a warm welcome and a pitch for a genuine Mayan pendant of some sort before being directed to the facilities. None of this is a bad experience because from what I could see, the folks doing the hawking were uniformly polite and friendly.

The ruins themselves, despite being accessed through the tourista infrastructure, still give one the impression of an ancient oasis in the feral tropics. Just before the entrance a group of folks were staring into the trees. I joined them to see that a good-sized snake had managed to snag and half swallow a bird although the bird was still flapping a wing in a vain attempt at escape. Don't be fooled by the happy cerveza huts, my friend, you are in the jungle; burning sun, dripping sweat.

The ruins themselves are grand stone structures spread out over what I would guess to be about ten acres. They are the exactly the sorts of buildings you picture Mayan ruins to be. Pyramidal and ornately squared off in an almost art deco-ish manner. Inlay some colorful tiles and Frank Lloyd Wright would be proud. We only had about an hour in the ruins area proper and I was really not interested in the detailed history our guide was providing so I broke off or some independent photography. And man, did I get some great shots. Unlike other Mayan ruins in Mexico, Tulum is right on the seaside, perched on a cliff. This makes for some dramatic images of the ruins with the sea in back drop. An hour my not seem long, but that's all you really need; it's just not a large area to cover and in that span I think I took close to a hundred pictures.

Back on the bus for about 15 minutes south, passing all sorts of little beachside resorts, to a pretty decent private beach club where there is a thatched roof dining area, changing rooms, and lounge chairs in the sand. We all ate fresh but nondescript Mexican buffet food, chatted briefly, then hit the beach for a little over an hour.

The beach in Tulum is as beautiful as they come. The sand is the same soft powdery variety that you get on the Florida gulf coast. The water is exquisite Caribbean turquoise; not too warm, not too cool. I wasted no time in getting in the water and swam and bobbed about, completely losing track of time. Fortuitously I finally trudged back to shore about five minutes before we were scheduled to leave, or I might still be there to this day. I was in the water for well over an hour.

Now we reversed the journey through Playa Del Carmen, a place I wish I had had more time to explore as a potential future destination, back to Cozumel and onto the ship to set sail. Thus completing my first trip to Mexico. I could handle some time in Tulum, it seems fully chilled out. Still, as I mentioned above, I have no sense for anything beyond the beach.

The reversal continued aboard, setting sail in the early evening, then another day at sea, where I availed myself of the ship's spa. It was...meh. Then back in port at Ft. L for an early morning disembarkation.

We all bee-lined for the airport, but my flight wasn't until 7 PM, so I snagged a rental car with a plan to explore Ft. L. It seemed there is a decent sized art museum currently running a Norman Rockwell exhibition so I shot over to it and dropped some cash to park only to find the museum was closed on Mondays. Great. I hoofed it along the riverwalk for a while but, while parts of the city seem quite lovely, and they have a loud and ritzy beach area, I just didn't see anything the made me feel comfortable with the place. Maybe it was the busy city streets, or the awkward shadows cast by the tall downtown buildings, or the fact that you have to cross a busy four lane thoroughfare (A1A at its ugliest) to get to the beach. It's a disharmonius juxapositon of city development and beach resort town. After about an hour I decided Ft L wasn't for me.

So I headed north on A1A; a fascinating drive through the social strata. Beyond the big hotels, Ft. L is characterized by what I would guess are '70s era apartment/condos, and they are getting long in the tooth. But pretty much the instant you cross into Deerfield Beach and Boynton, things start to steadily and obviously move upscale. By the time you hit Boca Raton, you know you have arrived. Keep going far enough and you'll go over the top in Palm Beach.

North of Boca and south of Lake Worth and Palm Beach is the town of Delray Beach. It is about perfect. It's an upscale beach town that doesn't take itself too seriously. There is clearly an emphasis on the active life. Apart from a handful of open air cafes along A1A, the action centers along Atlantic Avenue for four or five blocks perpendicular to the shore. The usual shops and cafes and some interesting restaurants. Nice and laid back. And the Florida oceanside beach is the same as the one I still idealize from age 11. Delray Beach was the discovery of the trip and it goes on the list for my habitual Florida travels.

I could have spent a couple of days here, but I had to hightail it back to FLL and wing it home because I had for a quick turnaround before my next journey...

[Travel] Home for Thanksgiving

Home for Thanksgiving: [[update: Valley of Fire State Park photos, Zion National Park photos, and Bryce Canyon National Park photos now available]]

I am sitting on a chaise lounge in a "GO room" at the Flamingo looking out at the dancing fountains of Bellagio. It's not a particularly nice room; better than the Motel 6 level standard rooms, but far short of anything luxurious. A burnt out bulb, a slow as molasses LCD TV -- it's as if they decided to upgrade these room but didn't budget enough to make them wonderful. That's fine -- they're cheap (about $70/night). But there's that wonderful view: the Bally's sign is most prominent, with gyrating scantily clad women appearing at regular intervals. Beyond that the Bellagio fountain. Beyond that the Strip southward. Plus there is a little mini-fridge in which I have socked away some Diet Coke that I bought at Walgreens rather than pay $3 from the gift shop. I have never seen a mini-fridge before in Vegas. I'm starting to like these "GO rooms".

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, as of the time I am writing this. Actually in the Eastern Time Zone it's already Thanksgiving, technically. I arrived this afternoon (upgraded to first class), pillaged the various sports books for the best lines, and then hit Palazzo where I dined at one of my favorites, Mario Batali's Carnevino. Despite the name, which means "beef and wine" more or less, they create the very best pasta dishes in the known universe. I had a half order of a special turkey pasta they had prepared (merely excellent) followed by a half order of the Ravioli Di Stracocco which, to my mind, is probably the most remarkable taste sensation I have ever experienced.

I then did a brief Strip-walk, explored Encore, the new-ish addition to Wynn which is equally as lovely it's mother property, and equally overpriced. Returning to Wynn to place my NFL bets and grab a nightcap at Parasol Down. Fully lubricated I walked back to the Flamingo, pausing to listen to an exceptionally talented band at Carnival Court outside Harrah's then a quick pass through Imperial Palace, the site of some epic blackjack throw-downs in my past, but I forwent repeating the experience -- now older and wiser and with no desire to recklessly tempt fate.

Chances are, dear reader, you spend Thanksgiving rehashing familiar and eternal neuroses in the bosom of family then fall asleep turkey-satiated in front of the football games. I go to Vegas. You probably have mixed feelings about the whole holiday charade, but despite the emotional turmoil, you find comfort in the tradition and all the known quantities. I do to. Whatever the course of the world from year to year, Vegas is still Vegas. The Forum Shops at Caesar's Palace are still packed with window shoppers. Cheesy shows are still advertised from gigantic, garish displays. The restaurants are still serving amazing food that is dreadfully overpriced. People are still drinking and carousing and cranking away at the slots. Couples with strange foreign accents are still asking for you to take their picture. Sex is still for sale everywhere you look. The cabbies are still queued up. The fountains are still dancing. And though the odds are dire, I may still win every bet I place. Just like you, I am home the holiday.

Actually the odds are less dire now. It is now Thanksgiving evening and I have won every bet on today's games including my three team parlay. Sweet payoffs. Even if I lose all of Sunday's action, I'll break about even.

Vegas still being Vegas, things are always changing. This morning I took a walk down towards an enormous new development project called City Center. It is masterminded by MGM and is, in theory, an attempt to recreate an entire city writ small between Monte Carlo and Bellagio. Of course, this "city" consists of a new monster hotel/casino called Aria and a new high end hotel, the Mandarin Oriental. There will be courtyards and pathway and parks and its own little monorail. And a mall; gotta have another mall. It's tagline is "A new Capitol of the World", I'm sure it will be priced as such. Parts of the complex are slated to open sometime next week, but I can't see it being fully functional before the New Year, judging from the state of construction. Then, it might be something worth visiting.

Another new discovery (although it's actually be around over a year) is the sportsbook at the Palazzo. Most sportsbooks are sullen affairs -- rows of chairs in a darkened space, gigantic odds boards, dozens of big screens, half showing games while the other half plays the horse races. Guys sitting around angling for comped Bud Lights. It's like being inside a movie theatre with a very unsettling film on display that, if it ends badly, costs you money. It's a very cold and uninviting effect. At Palazzo, the sportsbooks is like a big freindly man cave. There are beds and big comfy chairs and couches. Part of it is open air. Reservable cabanas. There's even a pool table. Emeril Lagasse's Del Toro restaurant is on site. I would love to go back for the Super Bowl. Far and away the best sportsbook in town. It goes on the list for next year.

But for the most part I know what I want from Vegas. And now, on Friday morning, I have it. I still have to stop by on Monday to cash out and of my Sunday winners, but the next three days are dedicated to Zion National Park just across the border in lovely Utah.

First though, a quick stop at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada as a warm up. It's odd to consider how much good hiking is within close range of Vegas. Red Rock Canyon is literally about seven minutes outside of town (in the other direction). A little over a half-hour north on I-15 is Valley of Fire. It's basically a drive through park with some striking red rock formations, kind of like the parks in Utah, only significantly scaled down. There is really only one hiking trail of any significance, the rest are parking areas by the rock formations, one of these, called the Beehives is apparently open for climbing since folks were swarming all around them like, well, bees.

A bit more than two hours north from there you get to Springdale, Utah. Springdale is situated right at the entrance to Zion and is quite a sweet little place in itself. Outdoorsy and upscale, basically one main street filled with inns, boutiques and homey restaurants with tasty food. My flop house is the Desert Pearl Inn which is absolutely beautiful. The room is as nice as anything I've seen -- in Vegas you would call this a luxury suite, in New York City you wouldn't bother calling it anything because you couldn't afford it. Here in Utah, it's reasonably priced. It would work well for long-termers because it has a kitchenette. The balcony looks out over the pool and the nicely maintained grounds. The aforementioned shops and restaurants are a few steps away. There is also a bidet, which I don't think I am coordinated enough to use. Before turning in I strolled down the street for a bite to eat and a pale ale, taking in lungfuls of the bracingly crisp clear air.

This morning, Saturday, I tried for Angel's Landing, knowing full well I may not make it. The hike to Angel's Landing in Zion National Park is not trivial. It's only about five-miles round trip, but the elevation gain is nearly 1500 feet. The National Park Service labels it as "strenuous". It is I suppose; it took me about 40 minutes to get up. It's a magnificent trail, steep switchbacks cut into massive red rock overhangs including a section called Walter's Wiggles which I can only describe as a hiker's version of Lombard Street in San Francisco.

I made it through all that, which put me at a place called Scotty's Landing, but the final half-mile from there to Angel's Landing is basically a scramble up the rock and across a narrow pathway, with sheer drops on either side of thousands of feet. Chains have been pounded in place to assist hikers through this section, but the Park Service warns: Do Not Attempt This if you are Remotely Afraid of Heights.

That, apparently, describes me. It's clear that I struggle with heights in some circumstances. The trail up featured many sheer drop-offs but they were no problem. I still am not sure exactly the situational requirements that trigger my acrophobia. I have in the past jumped out of an airplane, but I will struggle looking over the ledge of a skyscraper.

I made two abortive efforts to start the rock scramble upwards and in both cases I felt vertigo coming on. I knew there were points further on in the climb that would be even more scary and I could just see myself freezing up at the worst possible moment. I had to step off. Meanwhile, all sorts of people, from kids to soccer moms to beer belly dads to retirees, were slowly but surely making their way along to the summit. I took some photos and turned back, knowing this failure was going to bother me deeply.

Back at the trailhead I sat at a picnic table and forlornly munched on a granola bar. I felt shamefully pathetic. I looked with bitterness at the folks wandering to and fro who probably hadn't given a second thought to the climb. There are times when I loathe myself and my fears and my limitations, and curse all the failures and self-doubt they have brought on me in my life. This was one of those times. I am what I am, though, even if I hate facing it. I will never climb a mountain.

Despite my foul mood, I made another brief hike to a section called the Emerald Pools. Pleasant enough, although at this time of year, the "pools" were little more than puddles and the color was more Mudpie than Emerald. I'm sure they are quite lovely in the spring and summer. Now late afternoon, I turned back to Springdale for a shower and dinner and the hope that tomorrow would bring something more uplifting.

Don't want to leave the impression that Zion is some kind of depressing place. It is certainly one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Just standing in the Court of the Patriarchs, under the ancient gaze but towering mountains on every side is utterly gobsmacking. In fact most of the beauty is on such a grand scale that I am not a skilled enough photographer to create adequate perspective. It is, simply not to be missed.

The next day, I found myself in a better frame of mind. In the morning I did a short but stunning hike accurately called Canyon Overlook. It had a lot of "heighty" stuff -- sheer cliff drop-offs, narrow ledges, even a wooden platform to cross the angled around a cliff face. Many of the hikers were fretting some of this, but in a complete reversal of the day before I had no problem being a ruddy mountain goat. Again, I have no clue as to what the specific visuals are that trigger my vertigo. I guess Nature giveth and Nature taketh away. The view at the end of this hike is magnificent, taking in the entirety of Zion Canyon.

From there I again took to the road for my last outdoors destination, Bryce Canyon, about two hours northeast. I know I have spoken ecstatically about Bryce before and this, my second visit, didn't alter my opinion. It is simply otherworldly. Not of this Earth. Physics defying rock spires everywhere you look. Wandering the canyon I suspect it was something created by the art department for a sci-fi epic. The tagline would be Bryce Canyon: Total Landscape Outrage.

Sunset comes early in the canyons so I only had time for the three mile Queen's Garden/Navaho Loop trail, described in the brochure as the most amazing three mile hike in the world. This is an absolute fact. And unlike Zion, the hoodoos (the freaky rock formations) are not so overwhelming in scale that they can't be easily captured in photos. I took more pictures here than everywhere else put together.

Back for my last night at the Desert Pearl Inn I checked on my Sunday NFL bets. Of five wagers I lost four and tied one. Unbelievable. Still up about 50 bucks overall because I swept my Thursday bets, but geez. Like Nature, Vegas giveth and Vegas taketh away.

One final run back to Vegas. With a 6 PM flight I have time for a massage and a bit of R&R at the (relatively) new Encore Spa. It is quite a place. It may replace Qua at Caesars as my preferred spa for future visits. They have all the requisites: whirlpools, cold plunge, sauna, steam, they even have these things called "experience showers" which have about eight nozzles at various positions and can be programmed via LCD display with different temperatures and settings, but I found them way too complicated to deal with. I was happy just doing the hot/cold/hot/cold thing. Got a deep, deep, deep tissue massage and otherwise availed myself of all the amenities. The place is truly quite beautiful with a kind of oriental motif. You don't have to get a service to get in; should you find yourself gambled into oblivion and/or hungover and/or overly laden with rich food I strongly recommend you pay for day pass and just hang out for a two or three hours either at Encore or Qua. It's a perfect way to resist the temptation to go beyond overindulgence. It's especially good if you have a late flight and have had to check out and need to kill a few hours.

From there off to the airport to wing it back to the newly frigid Michigan winter. Already I have thoughts of next year. City Center will be open and I should certainly investigate. There is also the Country Club, a restaurant at Wynn that I thought was a very exclusive reservations only place, but looks like I could walk in and snag a bite at the bar if I got there early. The post-Thanksgiving weekend is an open issue. I'm tempted to hit San Diego/Del Mar again, since I enjoyed that one so much. I could do L.A. I doubt I'll hit the trails again, but maybe. I'm lucky. When I'm home for Thanksgiving there is always some new reason to give thanks.

[Travel] See the U.S.A.

See the U.S.A.: Sophia Dembling at World Hum explains why you should visit flyover country by picking ten must-sees, and nails it. Best of all she doesn't short change the commercial sites (Vegas, Disney World). These places are popular for a reason, specifically: they are awesome. But for the folks who claim to be unable to stomach such commerce oriented places she explains re: Vegas:
[T]his is a basic philosophical question: Do we travel to see what we want, or to see what is? I subscribe to the latter philosophy. Vegas IS, like it or not, in a very big way. It's more quintessential America-it's big, loud, razzle-dazzle, and unapologetic and, by the way, it's full of Europeans, who wouldn't dream of skipping it.

There is little to quibble with in her list of all-American places. I could do a similar list but it wouldn't be better. I'll try anyway:
  • Manhattan -- Center of the universe. Arts. Food. People. Energy.
  • Utah -- Spend some time in the big four parks -- Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands -- you will have the same awe at the world that you had as a kid.
  • Vegas -- What Sophia said.
  • Disney -- What Sophia said.
  • French Quarter -- After two hours on Bourbon Street and you will be drunk, deaf, and broke. If you're lucky.
  • Carlsbad Caverns -- The only place I've seen that is as striking as the Utah parks. It's just unimaginable that such a place exists.
  • South Dakota -- I'll extend Sophia's Mt. Rushmore recommendation to include the swath of western South Dakota that covers the Badlands, the Crazy Horse memorial, Custer State Park, and the rest of the Black Hills.
  • Charleston/Savannah -- Two cities wholly devoted to the preservation of their past. Savannah's antebellum homes were made for touring. The heart of Charleston is more modern, but the surrounding plantations are verdant beauties.
  • Hana, Maui -- This is a tough one. You need Hawaii in this list and I could easily have gone with Kauai. But the road to Hana, the town itself, Hamoa beach, and the Seven Pools hike are as sweet a set of experiences as you can have. Forego the bus tours and day trips and arrange to stay a couple of nights in Hana. Only then will you relax enough to glimpse the spirit.
  • Northern Michigan -- I could have easily picked the upstate New York (Adirondacks or Finger Lakes), but this is a sentimental favorite. Follow the Lake Michigan shore from Saugatuck up around the glove to Leelanau Peninsula and on to Mackinac Island. You will then know Lake Culture.

The more I think about it, I bet I could do another set of ten alternatives. Maybe next month.

(If you are looking for a single massive road trip, check out the Nation Park Service's site devoted to Route 66.)

[Detroit] Worse? How Could it be Worse? Jehovah!

Worse? How Could it be Worse? Jehovah!: Sorry for the obscure Life of Brian quote, but it's what comes to mind when I read the work of deluded apologists who seem to think things in Detroit aren't all that bad. First, a refresher on the situation from the WSJ:
The fiscal mess puts [Mayor Dave] Bing in a Catch-22. He can't cut the city's taxes because the short-term hit to cash flow would leave the city unable to pay its bills. But without tax reform the city can't lure businesses back.

Detroit may simply not be viable in its current form. Political and economic leaders need to rethink the notion that the city can regain its former status as a major American metropolis capable of luring large companies with tax breaks--which was [disgraced and felonious former Mayor Kwame] Kilpatrick's failed strategy.

Detroit now more closely resembles a frontier town that needs not flashy stadiums and art institutes but basic services: police, firemen and good schools.
Short term, Detroit's best hope may be to go bankrupt.

Dave Bing (of whom I was a fan during his playing days with the Pistons) is by all accounts a solid, moral, well-intentioned man, but his cause is truly hopeless. I have half-jokingly suggested that the end of Detroit will come when the Unions and the Drug Dealers are fighting tribal battles with rocks and sticks until there are no longer enough people for a viable gene pool. More seriously, I suspect the end will play out like this:
  1. City checks (including paychecks) start to bounce and creditors start eyeing assets to divvy up.
  2. The State government will step in and literally take over the city. Of course, they will realize in short order that the rest of the State has no willingness or ability to prop up such a charity case and that if they try to fob off the financial shortfall on Michiganders in general, they will get their asses handed to them at the ballot box.
  3. So the Feds will get called in to sort things out. Obama (or his successor) will lead a bailout effort, and why not, since the city's main industry is already in their hands? As a result, taxpayers across the country will get to have Detroit hanging on their wallets for decades to come.

That's just the financial trash heap. It doesn't even touch on the stratospheric drop-out and illiteracy rates or the blatant, even prideful, corruption and crime. I have hammered on the entire abysmal situation before so I won't rehash in detail. What's amazing to me is not the situation itself but the reaction to it and the outright denial that exists in many quarters. Are you listening Mitch Albom? (He would be, if he could hear me under that pile of six-figure royalty checks.)

The latest one to catch my eye comes from Ben Wojdyla of Jalopnik, an absolutely ace car blog. In it, he addresses the recently fashionable notion that Detroit can be reborn as a farming community: total nonsense, as Ben correctly points out. Sadly, he then goes on to try to defend the city itself, and since he is too ethical to lie, he is doomed.
We could go on about how this "Idea of the Day" is embarrassing from the farming angle, but almost as sad is the base assumption of Detroit as a "failed city," a "nightmare town" as the Times puts it. Saturday I went to Eastern Market, the city's hundred fifty year old farmer's market and picked up groceries, had breakfast and read the news.

I bet you could do that in Port Au Prince too. There's a real paradise. Lucky you live in the suburbs or you'd be buying a week's worth of food at Eastern Market on Sunday because there aren't any grocery stores left in the city.
Sunday, my girlfriend and I put our bicycles in the car, put the dog on a leash and drove from the nearby suburbs into the city to go riding. We drove up and down the Dequindre Cut, in the past a major rail line running to the water, abandoned during the population and business exodus, formerly the home of gangs and drugs but recently opened as an urban bike and walk path.

Well, yes. When there are no businesses or people left to prey on, gangs tend to leave the area. In Detroit that counts as a victory.
We drove around downtown to check out a new Cuban themed martini and cigar bar, and drove through Hart plaza, where kids were skateboarding and doing bike tricks.

Hart Plaza is OK. It's part of the one square mile around the waterfront that the Detroit powers keep viable while the remainder of the city crumbles. This area supports thousands of apologists.

And then, as in all honest Detroit apologies, we get to the qualifications.
Is Detroit the nicest city in the world? By no means. The city government is in a continual state of paralysis and corruption, taxes on decent property is painfully high and insurance rates are seriously eye-watering. Crime is certainly still around, but it's below the surface now, nowhere near historic levels. There are certainly many places those unfamiliar with the city should not go. South Detroit is a scary place at night. The neighborhood around City Airport would probably make most softened Americans pee their pants. There are a lot of abandoned and broken-down, burnt-out places. I go to these places because I'm curious. I've lived in the metropolitan area for over a decade, and in that time I've gone from a naive farm boy to a naive auto journalist, but I've watched Detroit get better. Much better.

I'll leave the comment about crime being below historic levels and "under the surface" (huh?) to be chuckled at by anyone who can appreciate good solid dissembling. The point is that an outright Detroit booster has to describe his city in such a way, just in the interest of basic honesty. As for Detroit getting "much better" in the ten years he's been around, well I don't see it. Neither do any of the tens of thousands who fled the city in those years. I can tell you that after hearing the same apologies and claims of renaissance recited for over forty years, it's not getting better, it's getting worse. It's not failing, it's already failed.

What is most astounding about the apologists is their utter lack of any sense of irony. Look at the list of sins in that last quote. Then read Ben's closing:
I spend as much time as I can in Detroit not because of a morbid curiosity but because it isn't the varnished over, pretend perfect suburbs. It's honest and interesting.

But whatever. Since it's apparently okay to destroy things that might not be running at full tilt, maybe a little frayed around the edges, perhaps for want of better times, we're assuming it'll be cool to make the argument the NYTimes offices would look great as a PetSmart.

All that stuff he said about the burnt-out buildings and scary neighborhoods gets dismissed a paragraph later as merely a place that's a "not running at full tilt." The level of denial is truly astounding. Referring to a neighborhood that would make most people "pee their pants" as a place that's "a little frayed around the edges" does not make it a place that's a little frayed around the edges. Might as well put lipstick on a pig and call it Megan Fox. Or, more accurately in this case, lipstick on a dead pig's rotting corpse.

Then, after nicely varnishing the city which such delicate language he claims to love Detroit because it's unvarnished, as opposed to the "pretend perfect" suburbs (where he chooses to live). Ben, you owe me a new irony meter because you just exploded mine.

[TV] Men, Slightly Less Mad

Men, Slightly Less Mad: I'm still not sure how to characterize the just recently closed season of Mad Men. The most troubling aspect of it was how often they went to well of sneering at the backwards culture while reinforcing the '60s mythology. Really, how trite.

The second most troubling aspect was the hookups. Don taking up with the schoolteacher after having crossed paths with her only twice. Peggy behaving whorishly with Duck, out of the blue. Betsy lining up to leave Don to marry a man she barely knows. All these relationships were intriguing but superficial, then instantly became intimate.

On the other hand, the development of Don's character was excellent. He essentially became Conrad Hilton's bitch for a while. He got an ice water enema from Betsy's discovery of his past. And he finally had enough of getting jerked around by with Sterling Cooper. All this led to his coming to terms with the fact that he needed other people, and to keep the valuable relationships he required he had to be, if not weak, then at least somewhat sympathetic to the needs of others. This was all done in the very skilled, coherent dramatic fashion that we know the Mad Men writers are capable of.

However this may lead to a bigger problem for future seasons. (Let's assume they can restrain the Progressive chest-beating.) They are left with Don Draper as a more mature, wise and presumably happier man in many ways. But that could also make him a good deal less interesting as a character. If Don Draper has been solved by the end of season 3, then what's left for the show? I suppose we'll see.

Mad Med continues to hover in the doorway of my TV pantheon (Deadwood, Sopranos, The Wire) but never quite makes it across threshold. Too bad. I need four for a Mt. Rushmore. There's still a chance.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Month That Was - October 2009

The Month That Was - October 2009: The month was loaded down with proof that getting old ain't for sissies. I visited Binghamton, New York -- a fine example of an upstate NY college town -- and got in a day trip to Watkins Glen State Park, and did this having forgotten my camera. Then, on two separate occasions I managed to wrench my lower back to the point where walking or bending to tie my shoes required that I take huge doses of Vitamin I (ibuprofen) in preparation. This defeated a plan to do the Great Turtle race on Mackinac Island. Mind is going. Body is going. Soul is already a lost cause. Yet, I live to blog another day.

The Other Upstate
Book Look: The Blue Lantern, by Victor Pelevin
The Python (Monty) Story
There's No Town Like MoTown
Harvest Rainbow

The Other Upstate

The Other Upstate: The task was to meet Kate and Anna for a college evaluation visit, although it was really more of an Anna wants to see her boyfriend visit. The target was Binghamton, NY, about halfway between the east and west state borders, just over the southern border from Pennsylvania. Leave on Friday return on Monday. Driving to Binghamton is about an 8.5 hours chore. You can cut through Ontario or hug the south side of Lake Erie, either way it's about the same distance. I chose to skip the added complications of a border crossing with its passport requirement and sneering suspicions from the U.S. Customs grunts, so that meant an extended time on the Ohio Turnpike.

If there is a more tedious, mind-numbing road to travel in the United States than the Ohio Turnpike, I can't immediately think of it. It is a flat, straight toll road that crosses the width of the state. It offers no scenery to speak of. Generally, once on it, you stay on it so as to avoid any toll gates until you have to exit. There are official rest stops every 30-40 miles -- not bad ones as far as official rest stops go; they are clean and functional and do not horrendously overcharge their captive audience. And that's all there is. If you don't have Sirius, you'll wish you did. It's not a painful experience. It's better than sitting on the tarmac at some airport while to toilets overflow or any number of other potential horrors a traveler might encounter. It's just a persistent reminder that even at its best travel involves long stretches of boredom. The Ohio Turnpike puts that boredom in your face with a vengeance.

Just after Cleveland, you exit the Turnpike and drive for another hour over conventional highways and then through the tiny panhandle of Pennsylvania that borders Lake Erie and finally into New York State. I have driven through New York before. Twice, I think, but in both cases it was literally a matter of barreling through to some destination in Massachusetts. Having now trolled through its heart and wandered about, I see upstate NY as very similar to upstate Michigan. I would refer to them both as having Lake Culture. Of course, there are more lakes and fewer mountains in Michigan, but the lifestyle similarities are striking. It starts with a good sized state that has corners and pockets of urban activity on the peripherals. In Michigan there is Detroit at one corner and Chicago just outside the other. In NY there is NYC/Philly and the Rochester/Buffalo/Toronto region. In both cases, these populations feed into an extended array of quaint, semi-rustic towns loaded down with B&B's and vacation rentals, nominally centered around lakes. Lake Culture requires four distinct seasons, each bearing its own outdoor recreational opportunities -- hunting, camping, canoeing, swimming, boating, skiing, biking, hiking, etc. Then there are the telltale seasonal sensations: hot chocolate around the hearth in a ski lodge or the crackle of ice beneath your boots; the smell of newborn grass in the rain and the sense freedom of the first time you can leave house without your coat; the plunge into a cool freshwater lake on a ninety degree day; the flash of harvest colors followed by the scent of burning leaves. In New York they call it "upstate"; in Michigan we call it "up north". Same thing.

Binghamton proper seems like a fine little college town. Sort of half picturesque and half suburban strip mall chic. There doesn't appear to be too much going on except the University and its own little eco-system. It is situated a little over an hour's drive of the sublime Finger Lakes region. The Finger Lakes are a handful of long thin lakes splayed out over west-central New York. The region is loaded down with state parks, wineries, old-school colleges (most famously Cornell), and quaint towns and villages with historic districts: Lake Culture. We only had a few hours to explore so we made for Watkins Glen State Park.

Not really having any idea what to expect, Watkins Glen SP blew us away with a rim trail of striking cliff overlooks leading down into an eerily beautiful path carved into the rock, running deep into a stream-cut gorge surrounded by walls of heavily layered rock and winding past willowy waterfalls. It made want to punch myself: just after crossing the border into Ohio I realized I had forgotten my camera. That's right, Mr. 500-photos-a-day found himself at a site of extraordinary natural beauty without his Nikon. I was reduced trying to take snaps with my phone camera. In lieu of my usual photo set, I can only offer an image search on Bing. The whole Finger Lakes region is on my target list for future summers, though.

Back in Binghamton that evening we walked across the street to watch the Michigan football game, happened into another Wolverine fan, and ended up drinking beers and swapping Wolverine lore in an Applebee's the middle of upstate New York. You never know, eh?

That was it. Up the next day to grind out the reverse drive home. If find myself hoping Anna ends up going to school at Binghamton. I could show up on the weekend for visit, wander around the dorm in sandals and white socks just to embarrass her, then head up to the Finger Lakes for a little Lake Culture. Sounds like a plan.

Book Look: The Blue Lantern by Victor Pelevin

Book Look: The Blue Lantern by Victor Pelevin: Pelevin is probably the last prominent writer that emerged from communist Russia. His earliest published works nearly coincide with the fall of The Wall and the nine short stories in The Blue Lantern capture characters thrust into unaccustomed and hopeful circumstances, but with the darkly fatalistic weight of communist futility still dominating their minds. In other words, they are very Russian. But that's not to say they are dreary or dire. There is a playful absurdity to them -- partly because Pelevin falls solidly in the magic-realist category -- and there is even a sense of fun, although always we are pulled back to a hollow end.

Workers go about their grinding daily business only to discover that they are actually dead. Transsexual hookers and sailors play a game of chess with potentially deadly consequences. A shed (yes, a shed) has a life story and therefore a consciousness and dreams of freedom. The most endearing story is "Hermit and Six Toes," about two creatures struggling to break free of the limits imposed on them by others of their kind and by the gods. The gods turn out to be humans. The most wickedly wry is "The Tambourine of the Upper World" in which witchcraft is used to raise foreign WW2 dead from the grave as husbands for Russian women trying to get citizenship abroad.

By simple description, many of the stories will sound heavy-handed, and conceptually, many are. But Pelevin is a skilled dramatist so instead of feeling bludgeoned with symbolism and allegory, you end up enjoying the final Twilight Zone twist. I would read more Pelevin if I didn't already have a six foot tall reading list. In some ways he reminds me of one of my favorites, Haruki Murakami -- the deft use of the mystical; the sympathetic characters who experience the collision of the personal and the philosophical. And both have captured the fancy of the inquisitive youth in their home markets. Recommended.

The Python (Monty) Story

The Python (Monty) Story: IFC ran a five-part documentary on the Pythons in honor of their 40th anniversary, Monty Python: Almost the Truth (Lawyer's Cut), and it was wonderful. It featured interviews with all the surviving members and it was an absolutely joy to re-live all the old skits and movies. I have scrupulously avoided watching them for the past quarter century or so because I was afraid of how they would age. I needn't have feared. They've aged pretty much as you would expect. The shows were uneven, but the first two movies still rank in the top five funniest movies ever, with Life of Brian being the Python pinnacle.

Some of the more personal aspects of the Pythons were fascinating to learn of. For example, I always thought of them as a kind of close-knit bunch; dearest friends from the outset, like Lennon-McCartney or Seinfeld-David. Not so. While they seem to have had good working relationships, they were not the best of friends, generally going their own way outside of work, and they did have their (temporary) falling outs. I never realized how much the two Terrys were the driving forces behind the movies. For some reason, I always had it in my head the Idle and Chapman were sort of the grand poobahs of the troupe, with Cleese as the main face. I suppose that shows how dedicated they were to getting things right rather than personal promotion. No individual egos really showed through.

And God bless John Cleese for knowing when to end things. It was he who wanted to end the original series when he saw things were getting stale. He left the troupe and the remaining members did another half-season before realizing he was right. He also didn't really want to do the Meaning of Life which was distressingly uneven. Again he was probably right they would have been better off stopping after Brian (although the world would miss Mr. Creosote). Related to that, Cleese also did only 13 episodes of the utterly brilliant Fawlty Towers then stopped, just letting the work stand and its reputation grow over time. Knowing when not to go on is a rare quality in a world with 20 god-awful years of The Simpsons and Law and Order.

What is perhaps underappreciated about the Pythons is what astoundingly good actors they were. You can't tell me you aren't expecting a vein in Cleese's neck to burst while offering training for self-defense against fresh fruit, or Graham Chapman to have a nervous breakdown on the spot in the this job interview. For my money, Palin was the best of all. The variety of characters he played in Life of Brian was a tour de force of comic acting. They did, perhaps, have the advantage of both writing and acting. Comedy is such a sensitive and subtle thing that I suspect in many cases what is funny in the writer's head cannot adequately be described in words -- it's a matter of nuance and timing -- so by portraying their own creations they were able to get the characters pitch perfect. If they had produced some dismal melodrama rather than absurdist comedy these guy would be hailed as artists of historic importance.

In the end, what comes through most from the interviews is the personalities of the Pythons. To a man they were unbelievably smart, witty, engaging, and cleverly rebellious. Each had specific qualities that contributed to the whole -- Idle had musical and business sense, Gilliam had the visuals covered, Jones was the fervent driving force, Chapman and Cleese had star quality, Palin was the affable, do-it-all guy. The confluence of such people is a lightning strike and as they themselves point out when the question of reunions comes up, it can't be repeated; only noticeably mimicked.

Don't over think it. Just kick back and rediscover. Monty Python is not dead, or even pinin'. It's as fresh as it ever was.

There's No Town Like MoTown

There's No Town Like MoTown: I'm back at it. Pummeling away at the city of my birth. Kicking Detroit when it's down may seem ungentlemanly, but it's been down for 50 or 60 years so exactly how long should we wait?

Despite everything, Detroit still has its cheerleaders. This is especially true in sports journalism. understands. They catalog all the ridiculous stories in recent months about how the spirit of Detroit lives on through the plucky, marginal successes of whatever local sports team they happen to be covering. The city may be going down the toilet, but we can still feel good about themselves because of our sports teams. This is the cheap, millimeter-deep trope that makes sports journalists believe they are writing something "important" or "relevant". My favorite line is in one of the comments: "Sports teams play an integral role in stabilizing cities. Few people realize Hartford actually ceased to exist after the Whalers left." Snort.

I blame Mitch Albom for this endless stream of blubbery, sentimental baby talk. (I could, and may one day, write a book about how headslappingly awful 99.3% of all sports journalism is.)

Of course, even our "righteous franchise", the Tigers (as described by Sports Illustrated), managed to crash in the end, blowing a seven game lead and ending up losing a sudden death playoff against the Minnesota Twins who had no reason to play well at all what with coming from a strongly viable city that isn't mired in depression.

The best comment on the Tigers situation came from the profane and hilarious twitter feed "S**t My Dad Says": "I wanted to see Detroit win. I've been there. It's like God took a s**t on a parking lot. They deserve some good news."

Meanwhile we nearly had a riot downtown over Hope-and-Change handouts when there weren't enough applications for everyone.

"People fighting over a line; people threatening to shoot each other -- is this what we've come to?"


After the applications ran out, some scam artists were selling photocopies of the originals for $20 each. They were doing a brisk business, even though the white original forms state clearly on the bottom: "Do not duplicate -- Must Submit Original Application."

Volunteers from the city of Detroit Planning and Development Department eventually handed out yellow photocopies themselves. Intended as temporary assistance to avoid homelessness, the stopgap help will be doled out after private agencies hired by the city ensure applicants meet program criteria.

"I'm not even sure the government will accept those applications," said volunteer Pam Johnson. "But it's almost like they had to pacify people. There was almost a riot. I mean, they had to call out the (Detroit Police) Gang Squad. I saw an elderly woman almost get trampled to death."

In Detroit we provide slideshows of our near-riots. Perhaps they should have handed out Mitch Albom columns instead.

And still, people try. Over at Jaunted (as good a travel blog as you will find; I have in the past contributed to their sister site Hotel Chatter) contributing editor Chanize makes a heroic effort to portray Detroit as a city with "a bad rap" and convince you it might be worth a visit. Clearly a journalist with ethics, Chanize doesn't tell a lie, and is therefore destined to fail in this task. Let's read between the lines in some choice quotes.

Even Hollywood has infiltrated the city, filming shows like HBO's "Hung," and making movies like "Red Dawn" and "Gran Torino" on its streets.

Hollywood has only infiltrated the city because they have been paid to do so by Michigan taxpayers. And to no good end, it seems.

Those still raising their eyebrows over Detroit are usually older folks still channeling 1967 riot memories...

Really? The '67 riots are what everyone is channeling? Not the world-renown murder and violent crime rates that have been pretty much persistent for the last, oh, 40 years?

Yes, Detroit is a bit messy--one street can sport beautiful new buildings, but a block away lies a condemned property awaiting its fate--either remodel or eternal eyesore.

Just "a bit messy". It makes it sound like all that's needed is for someone to pick up their dirty socks and run a Hoover through the city.

Get the skinny on "The D" by taking "The Good, The Bad and The Hopeful bus tour from Feet on the Street."

Let me guess: narrated by Mitch Albom.

The three-hour adventure visits the downtrodden East Side area, but makes a stop at the beautifully bizarre Heidelberg Project-an outdoor art statement of urban plight.

Chicago has Millennium Park and we have an outdoor art statement of urban plight. Aren't you glad you spent your vacation here?

Sounds silly, but in this town it doesn't hurt to make sure your rental car is an American model, if just to blend with the crowd. Rent a Hyundai and you risk getting it smashed. Just kidding. Sorta.

That, my friends, is Detroit in a nutshell. Soil your own nest. React with indignation to those who haven't. Violently act out. Rinse, Lather, Repeat. They barely build cars in Detroit anymore, yet people still behave like this.

Bear in mind, all this is in an article extolling the virtues of Detroit. And Chanize does list some decent things to see and do, but not a single one of them is anything remotely memorable. For that matter, not a single one of them is a reason to get out of your chair, never mind hop a plane. Of the millions of places around the world, and the thousands of places in the U.S., and the hundreds of places in the Great Lakes area, there is simply no reason to visit Detroit. But she gets an A+ for effort. Which brings me to:

Our advice? Ignore the naysayers and head to Michigan.

My pet peeve. Detroit is not Michigan. Equating Detroit and Michigan is like equating the Bronx and the Adirondacks. You should definitely visit Michigan. It is especially beautiful right now. Just don't go into Detroit. We don't, and we live right here.

Harvest Rainbow

Harvest Rainbow: I finally got around to doing something I have been meaning to do for the past couple of years and that is spend a day wandering around my neighborhood here in lovely Dexter, Michigan, capturing the fall colors. You can see the results at Smugmug. Even I am impressed by the vibrancy. Now that I have Windows 7 loaded up, I can put together a rotating background of my favorite photos. Feel free to do the same.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Month That Was - September 2009

The Month That Was - September 2009: Jacket weather. That's where we are now. It's time to face up to the fact that summer is gone. I have no regrets. I got out quite a bit this season bit on the bike and in my running shoes. I went mountain biking in Moab, ate lobster in Maine, swam in the warm Atlantic in Florida and the chilly Lake Michigan in Chicago (below). Not bad at all as wrap up the fourth decade of my life and as preparation for the 50th winter.

As you can tell if you look at the photos of from Chicago on Smugmug or by doing a key word search on "painting detail" you see that I have gotten in the habit of taking photos of smallish sections of much larger paintings. Not exactly sure of my motivations here, but I think it's giving me a new perspective on some of this, and possibly assisting me with my image composition skills. Also, I needed to broaden my subjects beyond landscapes. Sorry if it's not to your taste.

Lots on books and TV this month. Which reminds me, if you find yourself having trouble keeping books and TV and movies in perspective, please check out this recap of Kurt Vonnegut explaining drama. It's a lesson to take to heart.

Chicago Summer's End
Book Look: The Elephant Vanishes
Book Look: Sum -- Forty Tales from the Afterlives
What You're Reading
Doing Donuts in the Garden
Toob Roundup

Chicago Summer's End

Chicago Summer's End: (Photos on Smugmug.) I may have to make Labor Day weekend in Chicago an annual event. I love Chicago. What could be more awesome than to be trolling up and down the lakeshore past restaurants and parks and museums and beaches and Wrigleyville in the soft, waning summer days? Nothing immediately comes to mind.

**Travel rant warning! Skip ahead about 4 paragraphs if you want to skip it. **

Another awesome thing about Chicago: it's four and a half hours by train from Ann Arbor. For me, that's a fifteen minute drive to the free parking at the train station, climb on board without paying to check my bags, ride the rails to Union Station in Chicago, grab a cab to my hotel (usually 5-10 minutes, less than $10). That's it. On the train you have ample leg room, no seatbelts, you can leave your seat for the bathroom or the snack car anytime you want, your gadgets can be powered up and used at all times. You can arrive 10 seconds before the train leaves if you want. If you miss your train, they just put you on the next one -- no worries.

Now contrast that with the experience of flying to Chicago. A 35 minute drive to a $9/day airport lot, arriving an hour early just in case. Hop the parking shuttle to the terminal. Pay to check your bags. Show your credentials to a security goon. Remove laptop and liquids from your carry-on. Strip off your shoes and belt and tuck any other metal into your carry-on. Stand around in your socks with your pants falling down because the idiots in front of you waited until they were to the metal detector before they started removing their jewelry and the shoes of their kids. Pray to God you didn't forget anything that would make the alarm go off. Re-dress and reverse everything you just did on the other side. If you're lucky you now get to sit around for a half-hour until your plane boards. Queue up as quickly as possible to get on the plane or else you'll be caught without an overhead bin for your carry-on. Squeeze into a seat with no legroom and don't you bloody move until you are permitted to under penalty of TSA strip search. Offer a silent pledge of your soul to not get caught sitting on the tarmac for hours. Get a plastic cup with 4 ozs of ice and 1 oz of Diet Coke. You have about a 10 minute window to use the tiny restroom should you need to, unfortunately all hundred or so passengers have the same window. Sit down and stay put again for landing. Reiterate the offer of your soul to the airline gods to get to the gate without an incident. Sit in baggage claim for a half hour getting hypnotized by the empty carousel. Take a $60, 45-minute cab ride from O'Hare to your hotel.

Flying saves no time, cost many hundreds more, and crushes your soul. Comparisons like this just really make me seethe at the air travel industry and bureaucracy. If we had high-speed (say 300 mph) cross-country rail service the airlines would be out of business and airports would become ghost towns.

I stayed at the Palmer House Hilton in the Loop, just a block from the Art Institute/Millennium Park/Grant Park and two blocks from the lakeshore. The Palmer House is the sort of place anyone who is anyone would stay in Chicago...if it was 1930. The lobby is amazingly beautiful -- baroque reliefs, dark wood trim, glistening chandeliers, ceilings fifty feet high -- and if you get a renovated room, it will have very tasteful d‚cor. But it is still an old, old building; normal tone conversations in the next room are crystal clear.

The pretense of high luxury breaks down quickly. The service policies are cynical. I got in about Noon and was told that a room was ready but it would cost me $20 if I wanted to check in before 1pm. The room is ready, but you are giving me the choice of waiting around an hour to enter it, or paying you $20? That's not hospitality, that's a shakedown. I waited the hour. And of course, as is the case in hotels everywhere these days, you are nickeled and dimed for everything: health club access, service charges, and, worst of all, internet connection. Internet access is available via wi-fi in the lobby and wired in your room. For $15 a day. Or you can use the terminals in the business center for .60 cents a minute (a penny a second). I don't know how to describe charges like that as anything other than cynical. I was going to cough up the $15 one day but the plug on the cable in my room was damaged and it couldn't hold a connection. I went down the desk the next day to have the charge removed, which was done immediately, but my request for them to send someone up to replace my cable was ignored, so I spent the weekend off-line.

My advice is to skip the Palmer House. It is not expensive and the combination of low price and the luxury presentation seems to make it a bargain, but the fa‡ade crumbles quickly. There are better hotels in the price range.

***End travel rant.***

But all this is blather. I should be talking about the coolness that is Chicago.

As is the case in most of my city visits, I spend the first afternoon/evening re-familiarizing myself with the lay of the land. On my feet I headed north on State from the Palmer House, passing Portillo's -- a tourist oriented spot famous for its Chicago dogs and Italian beefs.

A brief aside about food. There are three forms of paradigmatic food in Chicago: Chicago-style deep dish, Chicago dogs, and Italian beef sandwiches. Let's look at them in turn, from most to least famous.

  1. Chicago style deep dish pizza was invented in the 1940s at Pizzeria Uno. (In the 1980s Uno was franchised, including a branch in Ann Arbor where I spent most of my student years tending bar.) There have been many imitators over the years, but as it stands right now there are three other competitors for loyalists and a fourth that is breaking some new ground. The three other killer trad deep-dish spots are Giordano's, Gino's East, and Lou Malnati's. If you ask folks around town where to go to get the best pie, you will usually get one of two answers: Gino's East or Lou Malnati's (often just called "Lou's"). In my experience you will hear Lou's most often, at least at the moment.

    All of these pizzas are of the same style. The crust is like pie crust, the vegetables are fresh and cut in thick chunks, and the sauce -- which is what makes these pizzas to my senses -- is sweet and tangy and hits the palate with a real wallop.

    The new ground is being broken at Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company where they use basically the same ingredients but form the pizza into a pot pie rather than a big honkin' deep dish. It has a growing following of folks who are truly in the know, but it's away from the Loop/Mag Mile/Rush street tourist centers and it's a bit of a hoof from the closest El stop.

  2. Chicago dogs, sometimes erroneously called "red hots", require detailed construction. The dog itself must be all beef (style points for Vienna Beef), and it must be boiled or steamed, not grilled. It must sit in a poppy-seed bun, which is also steamed. From there you add mustard, relish, chopped onions, as you would to any dog. Next you place on top two tomato wedges, a kosher dill quarter spear, and a couple of chili peppers, although in the context of a Chicago dog, they are always referred to as "sport peppers". Lastly, you add a dash of celery salt.

    There are hot dog vendors everywhere you look in Chicago. The most famous spot is Hot Doug's which is off the beaten tourist tracks. In the heart of Chicago, Portillo's is the place or perhaps Jim's Original if you are south of the main activity centers (it's right near the University of Chicago).

  3. Italian Beef sandwiches are the simplest of the three. From the description it can sound like little more than a beef sub, but that's very, very wrong. An Italian Beef, formerly called a "Dago Beef" before we became politically correct, starts with sliced beef that has been wet roasted in a juice or broth that contains various spices but at a minimum, oregano and garlic. The beef ends up about medium rare and is served on a sub roll with the cooking liquid poured right on top. It's like a French dip with the dip poured on it already, but the dip itself is succulently spiced. It is topped with sweet peppers and served. Simplicity itself, but when the beef is top quality and just barely approaching medium-rare, your tongue will unfold like a flower with each bite. I love these things.

    There is little consensus on where to get the best Italian Beef. Portillo's comes up again, and in fact, many places where you can get a good Chicago dog also serve a good Italian beef. Interestingly, I have found that the Italian Beef served at the little snack shop at the end of Navy Pier does a fair job.

OK, so that aside wasn't very brief, and probably not very relevant since I didn't eat at Portillo's; it was too busy. Nor did I have any of the three paradigm foods during my visit. But it is a cool thing about Chicago so any excuse will do.

Rather than Portillo's I stopped to eat at The Wit. The Wit is a new (or newly renovated) Hilton Doubletree hotel that by some fluke has become a hipster hot spot. Actually, it's not a fluke. It's partly because of the boutique-ish design of the place, but mostly because of the awesome rooftop lounge, with its big comfy chairs and terrific city views. The food was only decent but I can see where it would be quite the scene from happy hour through late nights. Conveniently, The Wit is a Hilton property so I can definitely put it on my short list for spots to stay next time (I'm a Hilton Honors program devotee). Not sure how I feel about the scenesters, though. They might end up annoying me after a while.

From there I trod north toward Rush Street, an area that comes alive at night with clubs and bars and open air restaurants and the fun flows through the streets. Alas, it was only late afternoon and I lose more and more interest in such fashionable locales with each passing year, so I curled over to Michigan Ave and headed back south through the glitter of the Magnificent Mile all the way south to Millennium Park.

I could spend an entire day in Millennium Park. It is the focal public area of Chicago and contains two of the most awesome pieces of city sculpture you will find anywhere. First, the Crown Fountain -- two 50-foot tall obelisks facing each other, with water cascading down them into makeshift waterfalls for kids to splash around in. What really makes it special are the faces rear-projected on the obelisks. They are just faces of average Chicagoans animated through some subtle changes of expression and occasionally pursing their lips and spewing a stream of water from their mouths. I defy anybody not to smile at the sight of this.

Second is the Bean, or Cloud Gate -- designed to look like an enormous drop of liquid mercury. Its shape and position end up creating fascinating, fun-house style views of both yourself and the skyline surrounding you. I love how it's intended to use the skyline as part of the artistic effect. I defy anybody not to stop and stare and take some snapshots at the sight of this.

Less arresting but more intriguing is the Pritzker Pavilion. It is essentially a steel, mutated clam shell stage, designed for concerts and other events. Beyond the seating is an expansive lawn and the whole area is covered by a lattice-work trellis that has the curious effect of placing gently-curved gridlines across the skyline for a view that causes your eye to focus more closely on sections of the skyline, like tightening up the aperture of your camera.

I strolled a bit and enjoyed the park, and people's reaction to it, then settled into the Park Grill (the restaurant inside the Park itself) for dinner as the sun was dropping. There are indoor and outdoor portions to the Park Grill. The outdoor portion is somewhat raucous and serves mostly sandwiches and upscale pub grub. It's a fine place for socializing but they have a habit of turning the music up so loud your teeth vibrate. It's a good spot for a drink during a Cubs/White Sox game when they are in the hunt, but otherwise there are better options. Let's face it, the place is tourist central -- and it's reflected in the prices. Inside is more of a fine dining set up. I grabbed a seat at the inside bar and ordered up a reasonable dinner of duck and squash ravioli. Not bad -- a little bland, maybe. I probably should have stayed on the hunt for something more interesting to eat, but I was there, and it was getting on, and I was hungry.

Most importantly, I emerged from Millennium Park fully re-familiarized with Chicago.

The next day was devoted to cycling. One of the most jaw-droppingly cool things you can do in Chicago is bike along the lakeshore. (This is why it is important to visit in the warm months.) The Lakeshore bike (and jogging) path runs from Hyde Park down on the south side, north past the museum campus, on past Grant Park and the Art Institute, continues up to Navy Pier, keeps going to Lincoln Park and further north from there not quite reaching Loyola University. I would guess it's between fifteen and twenty miles, all of it along the lakeshore with the exception of a short stretch near Navy Pier.

On busy weekends it can seem like the entire city is out pedaling or jogging. I picked up a bike from Bike and Roll near Millennium Park and headed for points north. The first stop is Navy Pier. Navy Pier is touted as the single most popular tourist point in the nation. I'm sure by some definition it probably is. And it can seem like it on a busy weekend. There are about nine million things to do on Navy Pier -- all geared to tourists and all too expensive. There is the big Ferris wheel and hot air balloon rides if you're up for seeing the entire city in a glance. Food courts, restaurants, crap shops, an imitation Cirque du Soleil, beer garden, miniature golf, etc. The best bets here are the boat tours, especially the dinner cruises where you can check out the skyline at night or the fireworks shows every Friday and Saturday. The most interesting is almost certainly going to be the architecture cruise which follows the waterways inside the city with a narrated low-down on some of the more interesting buildings and city history.

For me, Navy Pier was just a convenient stop for an overpriced bottle of water before I pushed further north. Next stop was the North Avenue Beach. About a mile or so up from Navy Pier the beach broadens and turns into Chicago's miniature version of South Beach centered around a large building that contains the usual beach facilities -- restrooms, snack bar, etc. -- but also rents out beach volleyball courts and other summertime doo-dads. The second floor is given over to a somewhat rowdy beach bar called Castaways. This is party central in summertime Chicago; live music and soft sand. Lake Michigan is tolerably warm in late summer as long as you don't stay in too long, and the cream of Chicago's young adults are all out tanning and playing beach volleyball (rather seriously in some cases), I saw a couple of boot camp fitness classes going on. It was idyllic, only marred by the knowledge that these were summer's waning days.

Another brief push north took me through Lincoln Park proper and over to the Lincoln Park Zoo. It's on the small side, but it's a little gem provided you are happy with a pleasant stroll and not looking for a comprehensive wildlife experience. Heavy on primates, and a good selection of "big creatures" -- lions and tigers and bears... And, strangely, it's free admission. Yet more Chicago coolness.

North one last time and then off the lakeshore path down Addison to Wrigleyville. There is a reason everyone loves the Cubs and despite what you may have been told, it's not for the love of Wrigley Field. Having attended a game there (on a previous trip, the Cubs were on the road this time) I can say unequivocally that there is little to love about Wrigley Field. It is, like the Palmer House Hotel, a relic from a bygone era, and quite explicit evidence that the good old days weren't all that good. It is an uncomfortable experience to watch a game there, provided you can even see it as there are plenty of obstructed view seats. Its facilities fall far short of modern standards of service and, quite frankly, it can be smelly. The only reason to like it is sentiment, of which I have none. I would take a modern park any day -- modern stadiums have benefitted tremendously from the need to compete with sitting at home in a recliner with HD and Tivo.

But what no other park can match, as far as I know, is Wrigleyville. The area surrounding Wrigley field consists of sports bar after sports bar punctuated with some souvenir shops. (There is also an El stop right in the heart of things.) Many of the bars open up the windows and you end up with an entire neighborhood full of good timers casually following the game. I stopped for a late lunch in one of the pubs. Just a smattering of folks were around because the Cubs were out of town and out of the pennant race. Still, it was easy to see the neighborhood as the source of the special feelings everyone has for the Cubs, despite their century long drought.

With the afternoon running down, I sped back to the trail and aimed south, retracing my path, eventually passing Millennium Park and stopping at Grant Park for a quick dash through the Chicago Jazzfest. Unlike their Bluesfest, Jazzfest is not all that spectacular. They get a couple of name acts -- although I will allow that there are very few "name acts" in Jazz anymore -- but they mostly pepper the line-up with "serious" jazz musicians which means the audience will be marginal. I wandered around a bit but nothing caught my eye or ear, so I set to pedaling further south.

The next southerly stop is the museum campus, consisting of the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, and the Shedd Aquarium. I zipped around a bit but as it was getting late I decided to push on and leave the museums for tomorrow. Just south of the museums stands the imposing Soldier Field, home of the Bears, sitting quietly awaiting the start of the NFL season. I continued south a ways further. With time, you can go even further south, eventually reaching the Hyde Park/U of Chicago area, but I didn't get that far. The sun was making a run to the horizon and it was starting to get a bit on the chilly side, plus I had a half-hour ride left to get back to the bike rental shop. The ride north afforded magnificent views skyline with the oblique lighting from the setting sun. I dropped the bike off at dusk; happily tired having covered close to 25 miles.

In fact, I was so enamored of the active, lakeshore life that I did it again the next day. This time in my running shoes. I threw some swimming gear into my day pack, laced up my Nikes, and hit the lakeshore path north the next morning. I got two or three miles along when I encountered a tiny little beach plot that was fenced off from the path. Passing it at cycling speed the day before I didn't realize it was a dedicated dog beach. I thought I was having fun on the lakeshore, but there is nothing more joyous than a pooch jamboree in the surf. No tennis ball, stick, or Frisbee was left unretrieved.

I could have spent the whole morning watching the dogs, but I had some swimming to do. I turned back south eventually reaching a smallish beach just to the north of Navy Pier called Ohio Beach (it's roughly where Ohio St. intersects Lakeshore Drive). What's unique about Ohio Beach is that a few yards off shore it's about 5-6 feet deep and that depth extends along the shoreline bulwarks for what is probably a full mile. That makes it perfect for open water swim training, as evidenced by the triathletes swarming around in their wetsuits. Me, I only had my swimming trunks, but I figured I'd take a shot at trying to keep up.

Now, I am not a novice swimmer. I knock off a mile or so with regularity in the pool at my health club on a weekly basis, so this shouldn't be too bad right? Well it turns out open water swimming is a more than a little different from pool swimming. First off, it's a bit nippy. The water temp was about 68 which, if you are without a wetsuit, is not cold enough to drive you out, but just cold enough that you can't really "get used to it". It also requires an especially long time to warm up. And it turns out that Lake Michigan lacks the nice smooth surface of a pool that allows you to turn and breathe without inhaling water. I verified this on multiple occasions. It was a full twenty minutes into my swim before I finally found anything resembling a nice natural stroke. Once I felt like I was finally going smoothly, I looked to my right to see an old man in a wetsuit clipping along like a metronome, passing me as if I were a Yugo on I-94. Maybe I am a novice swimmer.

After a full 45 minutes of hard swimming I was back at Ohio Beach doing something more appropriate: laying in the last of the summer sun to dry off, looking up at the skyscrapers just across the street, lamenting not knowing when I would have this feeling again. Then back on my Nikes for the final mile and a half or so back to the Hilton to clean up.

To give my poor body a rest, I hopped a cab down to the museum campus. In all honesty, I find non-art museums uniformly unimpressive. This is especially true of science museums, which tend to be less informative, entertaining and current than a half hour special on the Science Channel. In Chicago, the non-art museums are four-fold; they are: The Shedd Aquarium, The Adler Planetarium, The Field Museum, and The Museum of Science and Industry. Planetariums can put on good shows, but I was tired enough that I was afraid I would fall asleep in the dark. I have twice been to the Science and Industry Museum, once as a child and once a few years ago. It is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- dull. My first choice was the Shedd Aquarium, where I have never been, but there was an enormous line to get in (and a line to get in the line to get in) that went out into the sidewalk and along the street. So I settled for the Field museum, a place I have been numerous times.

The Field Museum has general themes of natural history and archeology and what, in a more open-minded time, could be referred to as anthropology, although now I'm sure we'd call it cultural studies or some such tripe. There are regular top-quality exhibitions, usually around some historical theme. At the moment the exhibition was called "Pirates!" providing background and stories of real live swashbucklers. It looked good, but I can't offer a definitive judgment since it was sold out.

A problem many non-art museums have is one of political correctness. They simply can't touch on hot button issues and if their displays don't summate with declarations of fealty to progressive philosophy while being careful to provide lip service to the loyal opposition, they will find themselves in some fresh hell of popular grievance. In history museums this tends to manifest itself in breathless prose about the spiritual validity and moral quality of any failed, backwards culture that has ever existed. (Except Nazis; it is always safe to malign Nazis.) In science museums this manifests as extended lectures on global warming and extinction and pollution and how filthy and despicable human beings are. Case in point -- a current show at the Adler Planetarium is described as follows:

Since the beginning of time, the people of Africa have used their knowledge of the sky to meet their physical needs for survival, build their societies and shape their spiritual lives.
Skywatchers of Africa is a fascinating exploration of Africa and the cultural uses of the sky that developed over thousands of years. The show highlights the diversity of African cultural astronomy and celebrates our shared human experience.

Dark energy, extra-solar planets, supermassive black holes, 11 dimensions -- fuggetaboutit. Astronomy is about honoring primitive African culture.

I'm snarky about all this, but I certainly don't expect things to be otherwise. Museums respond to their incentives and their incentives are to be like this. That's just the world as it is. It makes one aspect of the Field Museum all the more interesting. You see, the Field Museum got its start during the times of Teddy Roosevelt, when conservation basically meant shooting and stuffing animals for display. And the Field Museum is loaded down with shot and stuffed animals -- many are probably left over from Teddy's day. I suspect the kids going through the museum rarely ask where they came from, probably assuming they are just some form of special effects. That's good, because God forbid some poor soccer mom has to explain how these critters came to be in the state they are in.

Among the holdovers are the stuffed and mounted bodies of the man-eating Lions of Tsavo, who killed and ate dozens of people and caused an extended shut down of British expansion into central Africa a little more than a century ago. The mountings are not that impressive anymore, due to the shrinkage that comes from taxidermy, but it's nice to see the progressive world is unable to steamroll absolutely everything in its way.

If you're up for a good adventure story I highly recommend the account the activities of these lions as written by the officer who eventually killed them after a number of harrowing attempts, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, by J.H. Patterson.

Also, if you're up for more man-eater lore, the Field museum also has the stuffed carcass of the largest man-eating lion on record, the man-eater of Mfuwe. In the early '90s (1990s) this bad boy was snarfing up villagers in Zambia, who found that they couldn't do anything about it because hunting lions was restricted. Yes, that's right; the poor schlubs had to basically let this lion feed on them until some white Bwana came along who was willing to pony up for a hunting license to kill the thing. There's a post-modern man-eater story for ya.

With the museums closing, I strolled back to the Hilton, cutting through Grant Park and the Jazzfest once again, and once again hearing nothing all that compelling. It had been a full day. I slept deeply to say the least.

So I was down to my last day, with a train departure scheduled for 6 PM, I slept in and checked out at 11, leaving my bag with the bell hop, and performed one of my personal Chicago rituals: a breakfast smoothie from Jamba Juice before making my way to the Art Institute.

The big new thing at the Art Institute is the Modern Wing. Designed by famous architect Renzo Piano, it stands in stark contrast to the weighty, windowless behemoth to which it is attached. It is certainly modern -- all aluminum and glass and right angles. It is covered partially by huge green awnings to provide shade, but that also allow for skylighting. Inside the airy, natural light and pale wood trim provide a sense of openness and lightheartedness, again in contrast to the gravity of the old building. It's a very nice space, but it misses on counts of integration. It doesn't seem to enhance the experience of viewing the art in any way beyond providing a little more space, and compared to the exceedingly well integrated sculptures of Millennium Park just outside, it doesn't really add to the cohesiveness of the area. It's nice; nothing to be disappointed in, but not all that special.

Old or new, the Art Institute is one of my favorite places on Earth. I spent some time snapping photos of painting details, which has become an odd habit of mine. People give me weird looks but it's good in that it makes me regard the paintings more closely. I had previously paid little attention to In the Sea, by Arnold Bocklin, for instance. Looking closely at it I found the characters to be not just spectacularly creepy, but downright ugly, making me wonder whether he sought out ugly models to make a point. Anyway, you can check out Smugmug for the visuals. And yes, you can't visit the Art Institute with seeing La Grande Jatte.

Before I knew it, it was time to start home. I stopped for an early dinner at Pizano's Pizza and Pasta, a place I had never heard of before but was conveniently located in the Loop on my way to get my bags. Although I only grabbed an appetizer of sausage and peppers, the place is clearly a source of tastiness. They do have the expected deep dish pizza, but they also serve entrees that are prepared well over to the traditional Italian side of the spectrum featuring homemade pasta, rather than just reworked pub food with tomato sauce and garlic touches. Good place. Goes on the list for future visits.

The rest was simple. Grabs my bags, cab it back to Union Station, and a wonderfully uneventful train ride home. Thank you, Amtrak. I was in bed by midnight, vowing to make more frequent use of Chicago next summer.

Book Look: The Elephant Vansihes

Book Look: The Elephant Vansihes, by Haruki Murakami: The stories in this collection are about confusion. As with all good short stories, it is a shock to the system that triggers the action, and in this case that means bringing this confusion and chaos on to the scene. Given Murakami's predilection for magic realism it is not surprising that in all but two, the shock is something paranormal.

That is not to suggest these are dire and dark missives. Some can be quite lighthearted and charming. Some are opaque. All involve workaday Japanese going through the motions of modern life. They laconically describe their days --shopping for meals, sitting in dull meetings, sipping coffee, reading newspapers, etc. Then something strange happens. Ghostly figures appear and watch the static on TV; a dwarf arrives who can dance like an angel; an unusual memory sends a couple on a crime spree; a beloved sister brings home a boyfriend who burns down barns; an elephant disappears into thin air. Through these, we see the workaday types surrender themselves to strange longings and fears that they themselves don't really understand. This from the titular story:

That was the last time I saw her. We talked once on the phone after that, about some details in her tie-in article. While we spoke, I thought seriously about inviting her out for dinner, but I ended up not doing it. It just didn't seem to matter one way or the other.

I felt like this a lot after my experience with the vanishing elephant. I would begin to think I wanted to do something, but then I would be incapable of distinguishing between the probable results of doing it and of not doing it. I often get the feeling that things around me have lost their proper balance, though it could be that my perceptions are playing tricks on me. Some kind of balance inside me has broken down since the elephant affair, and maybe that causes external phenomena to strike my eye in a strange way. It's probably something in me.

Even the lighthearted stuff is just a bit unsettling.

The stories I found most affecting lacked the magic realism and the source of the shock was more human. In "Sleep" a woman is afflicted with insomnia, but uses the time to pursue interests beyond her current role as a housewife. Her view thus expanded, she grows to despise and resent her husband and son. In "A Family Affair" a free spirited bachelor who lives with his sister is thrust into re-evaluation when he realizes her new boyfriend, utterly conventional and straight-laced, should be admired rather than reviled.

In evidence throughout is Murakami's signature style of using innocent prose to describe convolution and complication. For the most part it works, until it doesn't. Resolutions, when you get one, are not exactly fluid. Often the stories seem to end by hitting a wall.

If you are a Murakami fan, you should read The Elephant Vanishes; you'll appreciate it. If you haven't read Murakami, this is not the place to start. It is safe to say he is a vastly better at novels than short stories.

Book Look: Sum -- Forty Tales from the Afterlives

Book Look: Sum -- Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman: A collection of forty very short (2 or 3 pages) speculations on the nature of the afterlife. These tales are all over the board, they might be based on speculative physics or some form of reincarnation or socio-biology or quasi-Christianity. The results can be anywhere from humorous to thoughtful, from The Twilight Zone to The Matrix.

In format, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives owes a debt to Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, from years ago -- a large number of short pieces, almost like blog posts, but nicely refined and engagingly written. The result is a good casual read that may promote some interesting thought. It's a little light on substance to be called mind candy; maybe mind fluff is better. It's worth a look; I'd wait for the paperback, though.

What You're Reading

What You're Reading: Let's get away from what I have been reading and talk about what you'll be reading. The WSJ has come up with a list of the hot books either recently released of coming soon. By hot books, they mean the publishing industry is going to gamble big money on these and try to come up with nefarious schemes and mind control techniques to make you buy them.

The article hits all the coming fiction and non-fiction. You can't read everything (unless you're Tyler Cowen), so here is my shot at pre-screening some of the fiction.

The Lost Symbol , Dan Brown: "Harvard symbologist and Vatican nemesis Robert Langdon returns in Dan Brown's sequel to his bestseller The Da Vinci Code." I would be willing to bet that I observe at least thirty people reading this book on every leg of every flight I take between now and the end of the year. I'm pretty sure that if I had some kind of extra-dimensional science fiction glasses I would see aliens sucking their brains out with a straw.

The Year of the Flood , Margaret Atwood: "Margaret Atwood's post-apocalyptic novel begins in the aftermath of a natural disaster that wiped out most of humanity, fulfilling a prophecy by a latter-day religious leader named Adam One. Survivors include a trapeze artist who is trapped inside a sex club... Ms. Atwood has written a one-hour musical theater piece to accompany the book, which will be performed during her book tour." With each passing day, I see more proof that it is simply not my world anymore.

Nocturnes , Kazuo Ishiguro: "Five pieces of short fiction by the Booker prize-winning author of "Remains of the Day" are thematically linked by music." An author many speak highly of and whose name is often mentioned in the same breath as "Nobel." His reviewers claim his novels center on human failings and his characters rarely achieve resolution. That appeals to me, but every description I have read of an Ishiguro plot is horrifically depressing. Too depressing even for droll comments.

Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby: "Pop music figures heavily--once again--in this latest novel by Mr. Hornby... The book's heroine, Annie, is having doubts about her boyfriend Duncan, who is obsessed with a reclusive folk singer." Love to Nick Hornby, purveyor of top quality lad lit. Even if it turns out to be nothing all that new, just a retread of About a Boy or High Fidelity, it's still a better way to spend your layover than frickin' Dan Brown.

The Wild Things, Dave Eggers: "Fans of Maurice Sendak's iconic children's book Where the Wild Things Are are bracing themselves for Dave Eggers's new take on the story--a novelization, based loosely on the children's book and published by Mr. Eggers's imprint McSweeney's, plus a big-screen version, which he co-wrote with director Spike Jonze." Celebrity author, beloved of hipsters, teaches us all how to sell novels in the 21st century. Eggers is Coldplay to Dan Brown's Jonas Bros. Or something.

Chronic City , Jonathan Lethem: "Jonathan Lethem... takes Manhattan with his new novel, Chronic City, which features a listless former child star whose astronaut girlfriend is trapped in space. There's also a tiger on the loose, a mysterious chocolate smell engulfing the city and a menagerie of colorful characters, including the brilliant but paranoid Perkus Tooth and the petite, irascible ghostwriter Oona Laszlo." Great, but where's my one-hour musical theatre piece?

The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk: "The new novel from the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author is set in the hedonistic world of Istanbul's Westernized aristocracy. Mr. Pamuk explores modern Turkey's identity crisis through the story of Kemal, the son of a wealthy family, who falls in love with a store clerk." Pamuk is the proto-typical Nobel Prize winner: a non-Westerner with a lifelong devotion to fiction writing, a very active and explicit socio-political sense (with specific concerns about the oppressed), and a bit of a prickly personality. That's a lot of baggage to bring to a novel. Anyone with even the slightest cynicism has to wonder if his renown and awards are products of his fashionable politics. He may be a great writer, but for me it's too much work to separate the writing from the reputation.

Last Night in Twisted River, John Irving: "Mr. Irving's 12th novel starts in 1954 in a New Hampshire logging settlement and spans five decades. The plot is set in motion when a 12-year-old boy and his father become fugitives after the boy mistakes the constable's girlfriend for a bear and bludgeons her with a frying pan." True story: I once got a rejection letter from an agent saying "Your writing reminds me of John Irving, but I just don't think I could sell it." If my writing reminds you of John Irving and you can't sell it, why the hell aren't you working at McDonalds?

The Humbling, Philip Roth: "In Philip Roth's 30th book, a washed up stage actor in his 60s laments his loss of talent." Really, dude? Really? Are you actively seeking abuse?

The Original of Laura, Vladimir Nabokov: "The draft of Nabokov's final novel will hit shelves more than 30 years after his death, following his son's decades-long deliberation over whether to publish the novel or destroy it in accordance with his father's wishes." I love Nabokov, but I don't want to read this. I'm semi-praying for it to suck so I won't be tempted to stomp on his last wishes. Please, first read Lolita and Pale Fire, then decide if you want to flip a posthumous bird at Vladimir by buying a copy.

In truth, if I ever read any of these it won't be for years. Any hype whatsoever will automatically disqualify a book from my reading list for a minimum of five years. You are different, though. You are susceptible to the nefarious machinations of the book industry. These books are what you'll be talking about over Zinfandel and Baba Ganoush at your next dinner party, that is if you actually have friends that read.