Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Month That Was - April 2010

The Month That Was - April 2010: You have, by now, noticed the minor changes in the site. A full discussion is below for those who are concerned with the totality of the housekeeping, but this is really just an interim state of affairs. This hassle was about the last thing I needed this month.

I got a fair amount of work done on Misspent Youth, but it's a three steps forward two steps back process. I am still convinced it will see the light of day before the year is out. Again, more below.

My paperwork deluge from last month has chilled significantly, but no sooner did I get my father's taxes done and submitted than what arrived in the mail but a "corrected 1099". Great. Luckily it was immaterial, so I was spared making amendments. And I closed on my condo refinance on the very last day of the month. It's been a very strange experience. I am so scrupulous about my use of credit that I'm pretty sure my rating is so good that I have made banks suspicious. They asked me to document all kinds of miscellaneous crap, odd and ends, the sorts of things that appear on bank statements which they would have never seen had it not been a certain time of year, but they said they needed complete source documentation. Pointless busywork. And then, because the title company and Bank of America were in such a rush to close before the end of the month, I went to closing not knowing what my payoff was, so they gave me three business days to get them a certified check so instead of getting everything done at closing I had to deliver a certified check to the title company 30 miles away the following week. Just a complete bureaucratic jerk around.

So I'm on facebook now. Yes, I broke down. Time for me to step into the 21st century, only a decade late. I've been slowly friending people and trying to assure that only my actual friends get friended. It's an interesting process. If I have a critical evaluation I'll post it here. Or maybe on I'll just put it on facebook. Next up: Twitter. (No, not really.)

As any regular readers know, I never post anything terribly personal on this site. I am not a big fan of emotional expositions in public. In fact, I rarely discuss personal stuff in private. But, just in case it shows through, I feel the need to say these last few weeks have been extraordinarily difficult on a personal level. I'm not sure reminding myself that life is marathon, not a sprint, is going to be much of a comfort. It is getting closer to a sprint with each passing year.

[Rant] Slogging Blogger
[Travel] Island of Tropical Breezes
[Travel] Madness on the Mall
[Books] Run With the Hunted, by Charles Bukowski
[Misspent Youth] Three Steps Forward, Two Back

[Rant] Slogging Blogger

Slogging Blogger: I have been keeping a blog now for over ten years. Originally I did everything myself, updated the pages and all the history manually, as often as every other day. After a few months of that, I took advantage of the free blogspot domain name that came with a Blogger account and switched over to Blogger, which automates a lot of this stuff. This was still long before Google bought Blogger.

In the course of this process, while I struggled with self-learning HTML and JavaScript, I made some decisions about the site design. Most notably, I decided that I would keep graphics to a bare minimum for the sake of fast loading. Nothing is more annoying to me than waiting for page to load that contains 5 megs of ads and graphics when all that is really important is 5k of text information. As a matter of scruple I would manage bandwidth efficiently. (This was back in the days of dial-up.)

So Google takes over Blogger; things get a lot faster, more reliable, and functional advancements come. They offer some basic templates and a few other tools, but I'm not interested because I just want to get my words up there so I continue with my more or less hand-coded site. In time Google offers more advanced templates, more complicated to edit and maintain, but with a wealth of flashy capabilities. Over time many bloggers switch to these templates (an onerous process) and most new bloggers use them from the get go. Not me, though -- no need.

Then, suddenly, about a month or two ago, Google gets the bright idea that they need to cut down on bandwidth. Too many bloggers are sending too much info through their servers. So they generate some advanced formula to limit how many posts of each site can go on the front page. Some folks who overload their sites with all sorts of gaudy visual crap barely get more than one post at a time. Others, like me, now get 20 posts, or roughly four months, whereas I was used to getting about two years worth of posts. Not good, in my view.

They attempted to mitigate this regression by automatically placing next and previous page links at the bottom of the page so that even if you couldn't get the number of posts you wanted on the front page, you could at least page through them in order. EXCEPT, the next page links only work on new templates. Those of us old-timers on old-style or handmade templates were left out in the cold, the only thing we can do is make sure archives are enabled -- which is what you see over to the right -- so that older posts can be accessed. So now if you want to look at older posts than what you see here on the front page, you have to troll through the archives to find them. Sheesh.

Anyway, the solution for me is to either bite the bullet and covert to a new template, or move to another service such as Wordpress. I'll sort it out in time, and I'm sure this is less annoying to you than it is to me. But it's my blog so I'll rant if I want to. I'm so happy to have another stupid maintenance task hovering over my head.

[Travel] Island of Tropical Breezes

Island of Tropical Breezes: [[San Juan photos on smugmug]] Here we go: Travel Tirade Alert. You have to admit, I haven't gone off on a full-on travel tirade in years. Well, goodbye to all that.

My relationship with Delta Airlines had been pretty good so far. My relationship had actually been with Northwest, but all through the transition to Delta things had been going fairly smoothly, at least by airline industry standards. Until now...

I knew there was going to be trouble when I couldn't pick my seat online 24 hours before the flight. You see, very often online seat assignment is locked down when you make the reservation, but at the time you check-in, which is 24 hours before takeoff, you can almost always get an assigned seat. For my flight to Puerto Rico I couldn't - nothing was available. OK, I thought, I'll be conscientious about getting to the airport with enough time to deal with it. Once at the airport the next day, the check-in kiosks were down so I ended up a half-hour in line get checked in, and at that point the ticket counter agent couldn't assign a seat either (still nothing available), he sent me to the gate without one on my boarding pass. This was getting bad; my biggest fear was spending the five hour flight in a middle seat between two behemoths with questionable hygiene.

At the gate, the agent explained that every seat had been assigned and they were asking for volunteers (standard overbooking situation; been there, done that). I still had hope. There are always volunteers, right? The problem was that the soonest flight was the same one the next day; volunteers would have to wait twenty four hours. Now I am in real trouble. No one is going to do that. Half these folks had cruise ships to catch.

In the end, it came down to me and one other person for the last available seat. The other person was a minor whose parent already had a seat assigned. They would have had to spend the night in a hotel, whereas I could relatively easily drive home. I was toast. No way was I going to get the last ticket. I got bumped involuntarily. First time that has ever happened to me. Just like that, my vacation is going to be exactly one day shorter.

Nothing to do but get in line at the help desk. In front of me were a couple of redneck families that didn't know their gate had been changed and suddenly realized it ten minutes after the flight had left. They got on stand-by but they kept pestering the agents for a guaranteed seat and asking to speak to supervisors, which is utterly pointless. Behind me was a guy pacing back and forth, moaning and sighing, sweating and panting, looking for all the world like he was going to vapor lock right on the spot. I let him go ahead of me. Air travel is a bubbling cauldron of condensed human nature. Yuck.

There was a bright side for me, however. A) My bag went on ahead, so it was there waiting for me when I arrived the next day -- very convenient. B) They put me in first class the next day -- I do love first class. C) They gave me $800. A cashable check -- not a voucher. I don't know if it's Delta policy or FAA regs or what, but there is some formula that is followed regarding reimbursing folks who are involuntarily bumped and it's fairly generous. (Note: it does not apply to flight cancellations. It only comes into play when the flight goes as planned but you had no seat due to overbooking and you didn't volunteer.) Not that I didn't deserve it. After all, they are solely responsible for me missing a day's vacation. I deposited the check immediately.

Note this, just in case you ever find yourself in a similar situation: If you do not have an assigned seat and they are asking for volunteers -- DO NOT volunteer for the sake of the voucher. That just lets them off the hook. If they have to bump you involuntarily you should get much better compensation than one of those stupid vouchers (which are often more trouble to use than they are worth).

The next day I got to Puerto Rico without a hitch and hopped a cab to the Caribe Hilton in San Juan. This Hilton is everything they said it is (and by "they" I mean the reviews on Tripadvisor). It's not shiny and new, but the rooms are good Hilton quality. There are a three or four restaurants on site, including a Morton's Steakhouse. A beach bar. Two or three pools, with plenty of lounge chairs. A fair sized private beach with a shallow bay that's well protected from the crashing waves off shore. It's nicely located -- a 2.5 mile walk or $12 cab ride into Old San Juan. That's really all you need for a fine vacation right there.

The down side is the prices are truly outrageous. Wynn-Las-Vegas-level-$11-mixed-drinks-in-a-plastic-cup expensive. The smart thing to do, should you ever decide to visit, is to head into Old San Juan and stop at the Walgreen's to load up on whatever small items you can -- there is a fridge in the room.

In a year when Florida pretty much froze over, it's smart to keep in mind that Puerto Rico is roughly on the same latitude as the Virgin Islands. If you simply cannot risk going without warmth and sunshine, Puerto Rico is a safe bet. Lounging about at the Hilton while working on a nice dark tan is a great way to spend a lazy afternoon. I love the sensation when the heat of the sun finally reaches into the core of your body, just before you start to overheat and begin the sense that desire to hop in the pool to cool off.

But beyond the resort, there is little in the immediate vicinity, so Old San Juan is where you want to be -- in the morning for photography and exploring, and the evening for dinner. Old San Juan doubles as a tourist center and cruise ship port; however, it is much geared toward historic preservation rather than t-shirt kiosks. Founded in 1508 by Juan Ponce De Leon, it is one of the oldest European settlements in the New World. It consists of narrow streets, many paved in cobblestones, criss-crossing between flat-roofed stone buildings, painted in the soft pastels of the Caribbean. True, many of these buildings now contain things like Walgreen's and Starbucks and Guess, but beyond the store signs you wouldn't know it. Bling is clearly not encouraged.

In the morning, when the light is oblique and soft and the temperature comfortable, it's loaded with rewarding sights. Peppered throughout the town are the stone remains of the Spanish fortresses from centuries past, the most complete being El Morro on the far northwest point. In front of El Morro is a vast lawn which was serendipitously covered by masses of kite-flying children, like a Latino Norman Rockwell scene. The fort of El Morro itself is a National Historic Landmark and worth the $3 entry fee for the views alone. From El Morro you can walk along a coastal path to the San Juan Main Gate, the point of entry for sea travelers in days of yore, since one could walk through the gate and straight up the hill to the lovely Cathedral De San Juan and give thanks for surviving a sea journey.

Old San Juan is also the spot for food and nightlife. There are all manner of restaurants, from common fast food chains to high-toned ultra lounges. Our evening forays involved a substandard tapas joint one night (that shall remain nameless), followed the next night by an outstanding 5-course prix fixe at the sharply-styled Marmalade. Highly recommended, but it will stress your credit card limit.

Old San Juan is worth a day or two of exploration. It's a fine destination for a long weekend -- you are visiting the Caribbean without dealing with customs -- and if you find yourself with a cruise out of San Juan, I suggest booking a couple of days extra in front of you embarkation to enjoy the enjoy the old port.

The only other adventure of note in Puerto Rico was nighttime kayaking to one of the three "bio-bays." These are the bays where the bio-luminescent plankton light up at any disturbance, so running your hand through the water causes swirls of light to form around it. Puerto Rico has three bio-bays, the nearest one to San Juan is and hour and a half away. So along with a group of about ten or so others, were bussing it to Fajardo, about 40 miles east of San Juan. After a few minutes of prep and safety instruction we hopped into two-man kayaks and were paddling to a narrow mangrove canal just as dusk was upon us.

If you ever want to explain the word 'spooky' to someone, take them kayaking through a thick mangrove forest at night. Each kayaker was given a glow stick as a marker and you could barely follow the outline the other kayaks around you once the mangroves -- which are spooky looking enough: like slithering walls on either side of the canal -- block out what little light there is. After about 20 minutes you emerge from the canal into the broader bay with the faintest shards left from the fully set sun backlighting the landscape around you into a simple black outline.

Once the sun completely sets you are given ten minutes to paddle about while pestering with the microbial bio-critters, then it's an even darker trip back through the canal (this time with two way traffic causing all sorts of slapstick mishaps) eventually emerging on the other side to a beautiful tropical full moon.

It's a sweet trip and a fine experience. My only complaint would be that after an hour and half on the bus and another hour of paddling, it would have been nice to have a reasonable bathroom to clean up in. The ones on site were more scary that darkest of mangrove swamps.

And that was about it for Puerto Rico. Every time you hear a description of some tropical island, you always seem to hear about how friendly the natives were. Often, when you actually get there, your experience is not quite that. Frankly, especially when it comes to the Caribbean islands, I haven't found the locals to be particularly pleasant anywhere. More often than not, they seem pretty much disinterested -- not exactly what you'd call a good service culture. Puerto Rico, on the other hand, was filled with friendly helpful souls, from cabbies to cops. Honestly, not a single negative vibe did I feel and many folks went out of their way to be kind. A shuttle drive later told us that, while that is certainly the attitude most Puerto Ricans take to visitors, to each other -- not so much. Outside the main tourist areas, there is a good deal of crime and squalor, but inside the tourist areas, they try to keep a firm grip on things. It's pretty clear Stephen Sondheim had it down right -- lovely and ugly -- but as a visitor, all you can ask for is a share of the lovely.

I would rate Puerto Rico above a number of islands that have glowing reputations. I would take it over St. Martin, for instance. Certainly over St. Thomas. It's not a sleepy, laid back backwater, but it's got what's needed for a good time in the sun.

Just like that I was back on a plane. The plan for the residual of the trip was to fly into DC to catch up with my D.C. crew and spend a couple of days on the Mall for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. But Delta Airlines would not make it that easy...

[Travel] Madness on the Mall

Madness on the Mall: [[photos on Smugmug]] I was scheduled to fly from San Juan to Atlanta and then on to Reagan-National. I made it to Atlanta, but the ongoing flight was cancelled due to mechanical issues. Wonderful. So Delta rebooks me from Atlanta to NYC, then back down to DC. Wonderful. Except the flight to NYC was delayed (mechanical again) and I missed the connection back down to DC. Too late to reschedule the flight that day -- I would be spending the night in an airport hotel outside LaGuardia with no change of clothes, no razor or toothbrush. Wonderful. Meanwhile, it took the gate agent a full hour to schedule me on a flight the flowing day because the flight I missed was on US Airways not Delta and Delta needed to "take the reservation back". After an hour she finally told me she had accomplished this and handed me a stack of papers, but once I got to the hotel I realized the papers did not have a ticket or boarding pass. She had outright lied to me, but by then all I wanted to do was get to bed. The next morning, despite the fact that I needed sleep badly, I am up early and at the Delta Shuttle terminal with plenty of time to spare, which was wise because as expected, when I got to the ticket counter they had no idea what I was talking about. Wonderful. So for the umpteenth time I had to go through the whole story and had to push through the reflexive "There's nothing I can do" responses. It took the poor woman another hour and untold phone calls to get me on a flight back to DC.

This experience was even more maddening than getting bumped on my way down, because there was no reason I had to hang around in limbo while they went through whatever bizarre machinations they went through to change the reservation for US Airways back to Delta. There is no reason they couldn't have just punched up ticket for me on the next shuttle and dealt with the paperwork and hassle off-line, once I was safely on my way.

Delta really really hamfisted my itinerary this time out. They should be ashamed of themselves for having such moronic policies in place. Yet, Delta is my home hub, so if I want a direct flight, I have little choice. Actually, I do have a choice. Years ago, when they were Northwest, they got so terrible that I began to take indirect flights just to avoid them. I may have to do that again.

Finally in DC, I checked into the Hilton Garden Inn in Arlington, VA. At 10AM, not only did they not charge me for the night I missed at the last minute, they held the room open for me for early check-in the next day. Complete opposite end of the service spectrum from Delta. It is because of this that I have been a Hilton loyalist for years. They are like the Toyota of hotels -- nothing flashy, but dead reliable (and without the unintended acceleration).

After taking some time to clean up after my arduous journey, I hopped the metro to the Mall. The Mall, for those not up on their DC parlance, is the generic name for the area between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, where the major Smithsonian museums reside. Here's a long-ish guide to The Mall that I wrote up some years ago:
Technically, The Mall is the roughly 1 1/4 x 1/4 mile stretch between the Capitol in the east and Washington Monument in the west. Within that span are a number of museums, which I will get to in a moment. For the larger picture, if you consider the Washington Monument as the center of a cross, to the east as I said, is The Mall. To the north, there is a large lawn in the shape of an ellipse, called The Ellipse, immediately past which is a stately white house called, The White House. Clever, eh?

To the South is the Tidal Basin. Think of it as an oversized pond about a mile in circumference surrounded by a serene pathway that leads through the heart of cherry blossom country. The blooming of the cherry blossoms in the spring is a cause for a nice big festival. At the far end of the Tidal Basin stands the Jefferson Memorial.

To the west, at the opposite end of a large reflecting pool, called The Reflecting Pool, is the Lincoln Memorial. Surrounding The Reflecting Pool are The Vietnam Memorial, The Korean War Memorial, and the new World War II Memorial.

The area in its entirely is called The National Mall and Memorial Park and you do not want to try to cover all of this in a single day; maybe not even in a single weekend, depending on your stamina and the cushioning in your shoes; although for a price you can ride a sightseeing bus that trolls the area. If you wanted to cover everything in detail -- Capitol and White House tours, hit all the museums including IMAX movies, go to the top of the Washington Monument, guided tours of the National Gallery, and so forth, you may be looking at full work week. You would also have to reserve post-trip time to have your head examined.

The Reflecting Pool area and the Tidal Basin are really only for wandering. The memorials and the monuments in those areas are just that -- structures you see, contemplate briefly, take a snapshot to bore your friends with, then walk on. It is a lovely area to stroll around in; although you should best to avoid high summer heat and low winter freeze. Spring is ideal, if crowded, during Cherry Blossom time. Fall is very nice too. You can get food from one of the vendors and have yourself a little picnic.

If you have rugrats in tow, your options are probably more limited. You could try to drag them through the White House and the Capitol in the interest of civic education because, dammit, they'll thank you later. Bad idea. See above re: head examination. There will be plenty of time for them to reflect on the nature and majesty of their government after they start filing tax returns.

For the sake of the children, it's best to stick to the big three on The Mall -- the Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, and the Natural History Museum.

Air and Space is the one kids seem to get most excited about seeing. In truth, it's not all that. If your kids (or you) are aerospace geeks, you'll do fine. Actually, they'll do fine even if they're not. What they'll do is barrel through every exhibit at a breakneck pace, then beg to see IMAX, then beg for some overpriced, Apollo 13 branded crap from the gift shop, then beg for some double-priced junk food from McDonalds, then get bored and tired and start whining. Keep in mind: you're making memories.

You see, these museums aren't remotely what you would call "hands-on". In the case of Air and Space, that means you are left looking at planes, spaceships, mock-ups and such. Nothing really all that fascinating unless you have an abiding interest in that stuff.

The Natural History museum comes off a bit better. Lots of reconstructed imitation dinosaur bones -- actual size and so rather impressive. There is the Hope diamond and some interesting animated displays in the geology section. There is a live insect zoo. More IMAX. A good, if unsurprisingly overpriced cafe, making it a good place to be around lunch time.

Contrary to what may be popular impression, the American History Museum is probably the most vibrant of the three. They do a great job of not simply rehashing dry tales of the Founding Fathers, the Civil War. They have a good grip on pop culture -- now that pop culture is old enough to have a history -- Dorothy's ruby slippers, Indiana Jones' jacket and hat, and so forth. It will probably be the most relatable one for your kids.

There is no admission cost for any Smithsonian museum. IMAX cost extra. Get maps, locate the displays of importance, and don't try to see any museum in its entirety. Target your points of interest, get to them, and then move on. Don't underestimate the wear and tear on your soles. If you are driving in, don't try to save a few dollars by parking far away.

Since the key activity on The Mall is wandering through stately buildings and looking at things, if you have no scaled-down humanoids with you, you may as well look at stuff that is pleasing to see. My interest in politics is approximately zero, but if you are all about Hardball and How A Bill Becomes A Law, tours of the White House or the Capitol and a visit to the nearby National Archives might be right for you. For my money (which is nothing since all this is free, at least to the extent that any partially taxpayer financed enterprise is), the very best place on The Mall is the National Gallery of Art.

Even if you have only a passing familiarity with great art, you will see pieces you recognize in the National Gallery. You will probably come across a Monet or Renoir or Van Gogh that you have a print of on your wall at home or in the office. You will almost certainly discover something new and interesting to you. There are works from the Italian Renaissance that seem almost photorealistic in their use of perspective. There is a terrific set of early twentieth century American painting by George Bellows that portray a noir-ish New York City that show how little some things have changed. Also, there is a good cafe, making it another good place to be at lunch time.

Across from the National Gallery is the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art. With any "modern" art museum, you can count on running into a good bit of rubbish -- conceptual stuff about which the best that can be said is that it is inaccessible. Fortunately, the Hirshhorn is light on that kind of stuff. There is a solid collection of excellent sculptures; in fact, the most interesting one is on a small lawn outside the building near the entrance. A set of life sized people, seemingly involved in some sort of gossip, whose lower halves are shaped like those bean bag toys you had when you were a kid -- you know, knock'em over and they come right back up. It's really a very fascinating thing to see, very comical. You can wander in between them and see it from different angles. For the first time; I wished I had my camera. In contrast to the other stuff, trolling the art museums can actually be relaxing.

That description holds up pretty well. I should note that a) the American History museum has been completely renovated since then, not, I think, to its benefit, b) I did, in fact, have my camera this time, and, c) I didn't come close to portraying how busy it is during Cherry Blossom Festival.

My plan for this day was to stick primarily to the art museums. There were two things I wanted to see in the non-art monsters. There was an IMAX about the Hubble telescope at Air and Space that everyone was raving about, and there was an exhibit on the deepest ocean at Natural History which looked interesting. (I've been interested in that ever since the Deep Sea episode of the Planet Earth series a couple of years ago.)

I made for Air and Space, but the line to buy IMAX tickets doubled back on itself two or three times. I decided it was unlikely I would be able to get a ticket for that day. Air and Space is one of, if not the, most popular museums in the world with respect to number of visitors, but I never seen it so packed as it was that day. So I hoofed it out of there and across the Mall to Natural History which was even more packed -- I mean literally Bourbon-Street-during-Mardi-Gras packed. I was not going to get near any exhibit. Since it was lunch time, I made my way to the cafeteria to get something to eat and contemplate my next move, but lines for the food stations were almost as long as the lines for the IMAX, and there was not a table to be had. Again, I bolted.

This was getting ugly. I looked around The Mall -- there were tour busses parked end to end as far as the eye could see. It was Spring Break across much of the country. It was the prime blooming weekend for the cherry blossoms. I'm generally OK with reasonable crowds, but there is a tipping point where they become unmanageable. It's the same phenomena as going to an amusement park and having to wait 45 minutes in line for a 3 minute ride. Or maybe sitting on the tarmac for three hours for a one hour flight. The payoff eventually comes, but the waste of one's short life to achieve it is too high a price.

Luckily, you can always count on the tastes of the masses: The National Gallery was pretty much empty. I rewarded them by purchasing an overpriced lunch from their caf‚ then wandered about, engaging in my petit habit of taking close up pictures of interesting details of paintings. Especially notable were a couple of special exhibits. One was the art of Hendrick Avercamp who painted almost cartoonishly happy scenes from the early 17th century, a time that was known in Europe as the "Little Ice Age" (they had to play golf on ice -- yes, really), and a fairly intense exhibit called The Sacred Made Real, also from the 17th century, concerning a movement of Spanish artists to bring realism -- even if a bit gory -- to Catholic themed art.

From there a quick visit over to what has to be the least visited but most underrated art museum, the Freer-Sackler, which specializes in Asian art (although there is much more) and had a stunning exhibit on Tibetan Buddhist works of various species.

Once I was done art trolling, it was about 3 pm and it would still be over an hour before the light would turn oblique and soften for optimal cherry blossom photos, so I strolled over to the WWII memorial, attempted to get a panoramic shot, then lay down in grass and fell asleep. When the sun dropped low enough to make for interesting images I headed over to do a circle hike of the Tidal Basin, the shores of which are blanketed with blossoming cherry trees. All the other tourists had the same idea and the path was filled with photographer foot traffic. Everyone was angling for that perfect shot of swaths of pink petals with either the Washington or Jefferson monuments in the background. Painters had set up easels at a number of points. Peddle-boaters swarmed over the water. The weather was absolutely perfect. You couldn't have asked for a better day.

I finished my circle over by the Mandarin Orient where hangs a curious painting called the Mandarin Princess, featuring an Oriental princess of old sitting in a swing high above Washington DC with monkeys flying all around her. I posted a low res picture of this some years ago and it generated quite a bit of email interest. I took the time to snap a better one this time.

The next day, my last day of vacation, I spent the morning at Arlington National Cemetery, a mere mile and a half from my hotel but the Hilton shuttle driver was happy to make a special trip to drop me there. From a childhood visit here, I remembered the verdant pastoral beauty juxtaposed with haunting reverence of the endless white crosses; the same feelings returned. Even loud, obnoxious teenagers unloaded from tour busses tone it down here. The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier remains impressive. There is a ghostliness to the slow soft-footed steps of the guards and the unerring precision of the manual of arms that is entirely fitting to the place and proceedings. The audience maintains the requested silence, which I find remarkable in such an uncouth age.

A walk through the city of Arlington (nothing all that special) back to the hotel and then into Old Town Alexandria for dinner. Old Town Alex is a good general location, that is to say, you can go there without a specific destination in mind and find activities, shopping and restaurants. The waterfront is cleaner and more well developed that I remember it from years past. We had a substandard dinner at a place called Bilbo Baggins, but it was a fine evening for a brief walkabout.

Up the next day and off to the airport. In a shocking turn of events, Delta got me home without any drama whatsoever. I even snagged an exit row. The airlines giveth and the airlines taketh away.

[Books] Book Look: Run With the Hunted, by Charles Bukowski

Book Look: Run With the Hunted, Charles Bukowski: Confession: I did not read the entirety of this book. It's an extensive collection of short stories and poems spanning Bukowski's full career. I read about 70% of it so I'm pretty sure I got the flavor.

The works in this collection are heavily autobiographical, which is a problem in itself. Bukowski's characters, including himself, are low-lifes. Unrelentingly so. If he is spinning mostly fiction you would have to say his imagination is a bit limited. If it is himself transcribed relatively truthfully, then you have to read this as autobiography which adds a certain voyeuristic impact. I tend to lean toward the latter because the world of degenerates he describes is so comprehensive and genuine sounding. But you never know -- all writers are liars. Anyway, I will refer to the main character in these stories/poems as Bukowski, for expediency sake, even though he generally takes the pseudonym Henry Chianski in the narratives.

Everything bad happens to Bukowski. He is an ugly, maladaptive boy with an abusive father. He is loathed by his classmates and only succeeds at bullying. His adolescence is scarred by his severe acne that eventually requires hospitalization. He spends his adulthood as a drinking, fighting, whoring, self-destructive shit heel. He gets dead-end jobs only when he needs booze money or is about to get kicked out of his room, then picks fights at work to get himself fired. A consummate alcoholic, he wakes with the thought of drinking and spends endless hours in dive bars bumming drinks whenever he can, then goes off to wherever he is flopping for the night semi-conscious. He is, frankly, disgusting.

There is a saving grace here, though. He knows he's disgusting. He puts on no airs about noble poverty or principled rebellion. He accepts that he lives as he does and commits the acts he does because he is a dirt bag. He does not blame our sick society, brand marketers, the police state, government socialism, or global warming for his pathetic life. His view of the world is personal not sociological or political. He is a wastrel because it's his nature. People are contemptuous and contemptible because they are human beings and that's their nature. He makes no excuses. Honestly, that's a refreshing change. It put me in mind of Wild Bill's line in Deadwood: "Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?"

There is an aspect to Bukowski's appeal that is the worst sort of cultishness. He is idolized by the sorts of celebrities that fancy themselves anti-establishment or agents of societal awareness -- Sean Penn, Bono, etc. The more enthusiastic of his readers are almost indignantly devoted to him, as a perusal of the forums at will evidence.

But it's not all a matter of counter-cultural fashion. Bukowski is quite a good writer. Blunt and unforgiving; think of Hemmingway ignobly distilled through a filter of hostility and malt liquor. His short stories and novel excerpts were the focus of my reading and they were invariably clear, unadorned narratives -- a drunk's life, straight with no chaser. His poetry was also quite readable, although I am out of my element when it comes to critical evaluation there. It held to the same themes, but the poems often seemed the same as the stories, just with the prose parsed. His resentment of authority is palpable. His pain his heightened by his tacit acknowledgement that he is to blame for himself. His writing is certainly more honest and genuine than his fans. There is probably meaning in that.

Still, he's a one trick pony in a certain sense. He writes of his life on the margins. That's it. You can only take so much of that before you start to feel like you're in a conversation with someone who keeps rehashing their experiences to validate their worldview. More so because his later writings, when he had achieved notability, if not success, and the attention of Hollywood are of considerably less interest.

All this presents a problem. It is a fairly well documented phenomenon of American bourgeoisie that they have a voyeuristic fascination the fringes and outcasts of society, often elevating them to a higher status than their own -- but only from a safe distance. Tom Wolfe most clearly identified this phenomena in Radical Chic. You can see it today in the fascination with reality TV such as Jersey Shore and lives of thug rappers. Even the popularity of The Wire is at least partly due to this inclination. Bukowski's sledgehammer portrayal of a degenerate alcoholic life invites this same sort of fascination, and the cultural and critical baggage that goes with it.

Should you read Running With the Hunted? If it seems the sort of thing that attracts you, there is nothing better than Bukowski. I cannot say that you would be better off reading this collection as opposed to one of the novels from which it draws -- Factotum or Post Office or Ham on Rye, but that may jut reflect my prejudice towards novels. If you are more lazy-minded you may want to just rent one of the movies based on his writings. Factotum, starring Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor, or Barfly, starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, are both good, if not great, films. They will give you a feel for the material, but to get the full gut-punch of a brutally ugly life, you'll need to do your reading.

[Misspent Youth] Three Steps Forward, Two Back

Three Steps Forward, Two Back: I continue to find myself at the start of the end game for Misspent Youth. I have seen the first version of the formatted pdf -- with pages appearing as they will in the final book, not as a Word doc. The formatting is a disaster. Also, in re-reading it if final layout I've noticed a bunch of things I don't like, including stuff beyond copy edits, so I'm back in minor revision mode. None of this is unexpected. It's just a matter effort and diligence to get through it.

Anyway, here is the first draft of the long description -- what you will see as the description presented by booksellers and probably, with some slight variation, what will appear on the back cover.
David Mazzotta's third novel continues his comic exploration of the benign absurdity of normal life. His first, Apple Pie, looked at questions of identity and ethnicity in a college setting. The second, Business As Usual, took on topics of mortality and fortune amidst a corporate meltdown. Painting with his broadest brush yet, Misspent Youth presents an interconnected ensemble of all ages meandering through a few months of daily life in a leafy suburban community.

Billy, a weary lothario, is taking the plunge into standard domestic life -- although it's not really a plunge, more of a toe-by-toe wade into the shallow end. This tentative behavior is the source of great anxiety to Marlene, his do-it-all, single-mom girlfriend. Her impossibly precocious but behaviorally troubled daughter, Missy, is a concern for both of them.

Billy's life gets entangled with other denizens of the neighborhood veldt. Adults indulging their half-understood impulses; children bent by the burdens of the world. Without a native's understanding of communal norms and manners, Billy shuffles and sidesteps through carnal temptations, civil disobedience, and outright criminality before finding his place, sort of.

Misspent Youth lovingly satirizes the happy desperation of 21st century middle America.
You just can't wait, can you?