Monday, August 02, 2010

The Month That Was - July 2010

The Month That Was - July 2010: Outside. I've been outside a lot. That is, after all, the purpose of summer. I haven't been travelling, and probably won't until I get the house thing sorted out. Not that I can be said to be hoarding cash -- I just dropped $1100 on car repairs with only marginal success (more below), but I'm getting my cash balance in shape for pre-approval and scheduling tours and such. And I'm smiling a big contrarian smile as the bottom continues to fall out of the real estate market.

I've also been wielding the trusty old fine-toothed once again. I'm tweaking Misspent Youth hopefully for the last time. There are still a couple of formatting issues to clear up, too -- that never seems to end -- but I finally have a graphic design guy working on the cover so that should yield some tangible progress, which is nice for a change.

Just one time, I'd like something to be simple. Just one time.

[Books] Book Look: Losing Mum and Pup, by Christopher Buckley
[Rant] Surreal Tour
[Health and Fitness] Stroke, Stroke, Stroke, Breathe, *cough*
[Cars] Auto Recovery
[Rant] Get Outta My Head

[Books] Book Look: Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley

Book Look: Losing Mum and Pup by Christopher Buckley: I'm a big Christopher Buckley fan. He writes sharp little satiric comedies, based primarily on political or social "issues" with a gimlet eye, but a sympathetic one (he's a "laugh with" versus a "laugh at" guy). His style is smooth and accessible but still very highly crafted and thoughtful. Honestly, it's hard for me to imagine that only one of his books Thank You For Smoking has ever been done up by Hollywood. One of my first book reviews (on Slashdot of all places) was of his underappreciated alien abduction tale Little Green Men.

So when his parents, the redoubtable William F. and Pat Buckley, scions of the New York, Washington, and even global, high society, died within a year of each other, he found himself bringing his satirists eye to bear on something very personal and painful. But as they say, all comedy stems from pain, so who better than a comic novelist to bring such events to life.

I suspect the first thing that most people of a certain age will feel in reading this is something akin to familiarity, but Buckley's experiences are likely to be a bit more extreme. Probate and funeral arrangements are, for anyone, a time-sucking undertaking. Imagine doing it when some of the most powerful people alive need to have their say in the process and when hundreds of big players from around the world are peppering you daily emails of condolence and all of them have to be answered. Now do it twice. Oh, and somewhere in the middle of that, come to terms with your relationship with your parents and your personal grieving. Buckley, a satirist to the core, manages to laugh to keep from crying (at least as far as this narrative is concerned) more often than not. He recounts famous and infamous conflicts and farcical adventures with both parents, for example the sending out regular urine reports on his ailing father to the likes of Henry Kissinger.

Another point of identification is his mixed feelings towards his parents -- both of whom were ferociously loyal to him but unforgiving and demanding in the extreme. For his part he works to reconcile his resentment towards the slights he had experienced over the years -- the seething anger we all feel towards experiences that, if they had not come via or parents, would have been quickly forgotten -- with his foundation of unquestioning love for them.

There is so much to recommend in this book, including hilarious Buckley family stories almost as if this were a Christopher Buckley novel, mixed with harrowing and heartfelt moments, but the best thing that can be said for it is that it could be used as a guide for maintaining perspective and appreciating the absurdities of the process of losing your parents, all in an effort to keep your sanity.

Just a couple of more observations:

First, many years ago I read the elder Buckley's sailing books in which he and Christopher and pack of friends would take voyages across oceans, having a variety of salty adventures and maintaining diaries along the way. One of the voyagers was Danny Merritt, Christopher's best friend (also devoted friend of WFB), who always seemed to me to be a bit of glue in the interpersonal dynamics of the boating parties. It was nice to read after all those years the Christopher and Danny maintained their BFF-ish relationship. It's good to read about such a thing in a world where friendships tend to dissolve over time and distance.

Second, the some of the critical response to this book was flabbergasting. Specifically, I'm referring to the L.A. Times and the SF Gate reviews. In the course of the narrative, Buckley dropped only superficial mention of the domestic problems in the Buckley household over the years, but often went into a bit of gruesome detail about the physical breakdown both his parents faced at the end. These reviews seemed to feel that was wrong way around; that it was somehow disrespectful to discuss their illnesses, but simultaneously unconscionable to leave their personal weakness unexamined.

This is astounding to me: that the unavoidable ravages of time and nature are shaming, but there is a duty to expose our lurid personal weaknesses and neuroses for all to see. What a bizarre notion. I mean to say, WTF? I think Buckley did it just right. The book is a memoir about losing his parents not fodder for Jerry Springer. Anyway, as I am reminded every day, and as I remind you every month: It's not my world.

Should you read Losing Mum and Pup? Yes. It's hard for me to imagine anyone (short of shallow-minded journalists) not liking this book. Despite the dire topic, it is thoroughly amusing and uplifting. If you're like me, you eagerly blast through it in a couple of sittings.

[Rant] Surreal Tour

Surreal Tour: I was probably one of three North Americans who kept up with the Tour de France replays once Lance Armstrong was out of it after the fourth or fifth stage. The race was an extended exercise in Fellini-esque action.

First, Lance crashed. Then crashed again. Then again. Then again. I lost track, but it happened often enough that he found himself many minutes behind the guy he was supposed to battle (and eventual winner), Alberto Contador, who I hate, for reasons I'll get to.

There was a leg with extended segments over cobblestones, and if you have ever ridden a bike over cobblestones at any speed, never TdF speeds, you know the true meaning of the term "pain in the ass." In fact, there were so many crashes and other difficulties early on that at one point a huge mass of riders just decided to stop racing and finish all together in a big bunch as a form of protest. Like virtually all protests, it really didn't have any clear point. It was never stated what they wanted changed or who they were upset with. Nobody was hurt by this protest except the riders who were hoping to make up time on that particular stage. Essentially, it was a bunch of bratty athletes acting out. But it's important to remember, this was in France. Things are different there; they are not meant to make sense.

Why didn't some riders defy the protest out of self interest? Well, the answer to that question is part of what I like about cycling. There are unwritten rules of sportsmanship and communal duties. This is especially true for the riders bunched up in the peloton. It's this air of sportsmanship that I find appealing. Sadly, it was petty boorishness that dominated the tour this year.

Take the aforementioned Contador. First, I don't like him because he hosed Lance last year. Every team has a main guy -- the guy who is supposed to be the focus of their efforts, the one everyone sacrifices for in the interest of him winning the Tour. Last year, when Contador and Lance were teammates, that guy was supposed to be Lance, but Contador defied instructions and usurped Lance's position on the team, thus forcing the team to support Contador over Lance if someone from the team was going to win (it's a complicated situation but that's essentially the jist of it). It may sound like he was just being competitive, but it's the equivalent of, say, a batter swinging for the fences to make a home run record when he's been given the bunt sign in an effort to win the game. Even if it works, it's a dick move.

Another unwritten rule is that once the race leaders are established, they should not lose position because of mechanical issues. The idea is that the better cyclist should win, not the one who got lucky because nothing broke on his bike. This was famously displayed five or so years ago when Lance was leading and got his handlebars entangled in the handbag straps of some idiot spectator. Word was passed and all the other racers slowed to a crawl until Lance caught up. (Imagine something like this happening in NASCAR when Tony Stewart gets a flat tire.)

Well, cruising along about half way through the race, a exceptionally talented young cyclist named Andy Schleck was in the lead with Contador second. Suddenly, Schleck missed a shift and his chain came off. It took a few seconds for him to repair it. Guess who didn't stop? Contador ended up taking the lead for good. After coming under intense criticism and getting booed, Contador prepared an apology and posted it on YouTube. Note: he did not give Schleck a head start the next day or anything. The amount of time Schleck lost due to the malfunction: 39 seconds. The amount of time Contador won by: 39 seconds. The master of the dick move struck again.

Apart from that, there was a fistfight. Or what passes for a fistfight between two 120-lb., spandex and helmet wearing cyclists. The more jaded among us would have called it a slap-fight. An Australian rider got disqualified for trying to head-butt another cyclist while passing him. And at one point, riders had to maneuver their way through a herd of sheep that were trying to cross the road. All that was topped off by streakers along the roadside. Fellini would have been proud.

The worst appears to be yet to come, though. All that vaunted sportsmanship doesn't really extend off the course with respect to doping, and although there weren't any immediate doping disasters this year, the ghost of the previous years were hovering above. Specifically Floyd Landis, a previous miracle tour winner who was stripped of his title because of doping is now the main source for a broad-based investigation into doping in cycling by the FDA. He has accused Lance of doping over the years and claims to have directly witnessed it. He also has a book coming out.

(Aside: I fail to understand why the FDA needs to be involved here. I like the sport of cycling, but the in the litany of things that I would spend my tax dollars on, it doesn't approach notice.)

I fear sportsmanship may go by the wayside in cycling as it has just about everywhere else. We may come to see this year's Tour and the tipping point into crudity. Despite that, I'll probably watch next year. I still marvel at the ability of these guys to go for five or six hours at a rate I could probably only hope to keep up for a few seconds on my Schwinn. And I want to see Contador lose. Maybe he'll fall over a sheep and everyone will just pedal on by.

[Health and Fitness] Stroke, Stroke, Stroke, Breathe *cough*

Stroke, Stroke, Stroke, Breathe *cough*: Speaking of bikes, I have been out on mine a good deal this summer. In fact, it's been my saving grace when I bring my car in for repairs. I can just commute from the Toyota dealer to work or wherever. I need to do a long ride though. At the moment, I don't think I've gone more than 25 miles. I need to take a day to do about 50.

In fact, there were 3 modest fitness goals I had for this summer. A long bike ride was one (not necessarily an organized one). A 10K race was another -- got that covered: I've already run 7.5 on my own and I have an organized one scheduled. The final one was to get comfortable with open water swimming. I have worked my way up to a mile in the pool but, as I have discovered, open water swimming is an entirely different animal.

First, it seems I am incapable of swimming in a straight line without a stripe on the bottom of the pool to guide me. Honestly, I think you could probably add another 25% to the distance I swim just to account for my rather haphazard navigation. There is a technique to gracefully taking a quick look ahead every few strokes to verify that you are on line. Graceful is not in my realm of capability just yet. Awkward gawking and choking on boat-wash is more my style. Plus, there is also the fact that, unlike in the pool, you cannot count on not turning your head to breathe and inhaling air instead of a wave. And where I swim there is a high probability of a collision with a large-bellied man floating on his back while towing a couple of screaming kids wedged into an inflatable dinosaur float (don't ask).

Anyway, I'm getting there. I expect next summer my goal will be to do a triathlon, or perhaps I should just say I want to complete a triathlon at age 50. That is either noble or depressing. Maybe both.

[Cars] Auto Recovery

Auto Recovery: If you have been following along the past few months, you know I was briefly in the market for a new car. My '02 Camry is starting to get a little bothersome. Naturally, like everything else money intensive, that went on hold when I plunged into the house market. I turns out it's just as well. The once-in-a-lifetime buyer's market for cars has passed.

Hamstrung by union requirements to keep workers on, the automakers cranked out cars beyond anything demand could handle because the alternative was to pay them to do nothing. They loaded up inventory pipelines and fobbed off piles of cars on rental agencies. Used domestic sedans were so plentiful and cheap that enormous wholesalers sprang up in places like El Paso to buy cheap used cars for resale south of the border. Manufacturers were axe-ing entire brands - Pontiac, Saturn, Plymouth, Mercury, Hummer - and divesting others -- Saab, Volvo, Jaguar - and trying to clear them from their lots. Combine all that with the recession and a gas crisis that made SUVs into boat anchors; if you were one of the sparse few in the market, "name your price" was not such a huge exaggeration.

Well, if you try to name your price today you're likely to hear, "Too late. Ya snooze, ya lose!" Once the bankruptcy emergencies hit and the cushy fictions of the labor agreements were abandoned, the first thing these guys did was cut back production. Oversupply does not appear much of an issue anymore. The best car website I know of, The Truth About Cars, has an ongoing feature called "Hammertime" about the world of auctions and wholesaling and independent used car dealers wherein they argue this market shift has hit the used car market hardest, especially when you couple the fact that big money loans for new cars are not so readily available anymore and folks are getting more comfortable with good condition used cars (since all cars are of enormously higher quality and durability than they were just ten years ago). Demand up, supply down: do the math.

So having just dropped $400 on general maintenance and another $700 for bearings on the left rear wheel, and facing dropping another $700 on the right rear, not to mention probably another $500 to deal with whatever reason the check engine light is on, what do I do? Kelly Blue Book estimates about $5500 for a private sale. If you figure $2500 of recent and upcoming work, that leaves a $3500 residual which would be a nice down payment on something new or, even more so, a year-old model.

But honestly, as I have discussed before, a new car has pretty much nothing to offer me over and above my Camry when it's working properly. Even if I average $1500 a year on repairs and maintenance going forward, I'm still better off cash-wise with my current ride, and that's before taking into account all the unexpected hits to my wallet that a house is going to bring. I probably could have been swayed into buying if the monster buyer's market was still going on and I could have arranged a killer deal, but that time has passed. No. I'll pay to keep the Camry going another 4 or 5 years. By then, maybe I can sell it as a classic.

[Rant] Get Outta My Head

Get Outta My Head: For my day job, I recently took a personality test. Called Predictive Index, its primary goal is to identify your favored modes of communication and learning. The idea is that it's a way for managers to better facilitate useful communication among employees and perhaps defuse some conflicts. It involves only about five minutes of a survey, associating specific words with what personality features you believe you are expected to display.

Blah, blah, blah - more Human Resource silliness, right? Except I have to admit that this one nailed me cold. Astoundingly so considering it took only five minutes of time with no prep required. Here is my complete evaluation. There is one statement that is questionable, but everything else is pretty close to right on.
Dave is a thoughtful, disciplined person who is particularly attentive to, careful of, and accurate with the details involved in his job., He identifies problems, and enjoys solving them, particularly in his area of expertise. He works at a steady, even pace, leveraging his background for the betterment of the team, company, or customer.

With experience and/or training, Dave will develop a high level of specialized expertise. He is serious and dedicated to his job and the company. His work pace is steady and even-keeled, and he is motivated by a real concern for getting work done thoroughly and correctly. His discipline and circumspect thinking will lend caution to his decision-making; he plans ahead, double-checks, and follows up carefully on his decisions and actions.

A modest and unassuming person, Dave works autonomously in his area of expertise. When working outside of his expertise, his drive is to seek specialized knowledge by finding definitive answers from written resources, authoritative management, or established subject matter experts. He is most effective and productive when he works within or close to his own specialty and experience and he prefers to stick to the proven way. If it becomes necessary for him to initiate or adopt change, he will need to see cold hard evidence to prove that the new way is proven, complete and yields high-quality results. In addition, Dave will carefully plan the implementation to minimize problems and maximize results.

Dave is reserved and accommodating, expressing himself sincerely and factually.
In general he is rather cautious and conservative in his style, skeptical about anything new and unfamiliar or any change in the traditional way of doing things. Possessing the ability to strongly concentrate on the job at hand, he's most effective when given uninterrupted blocks of time. He has a better-than-average aptitude for work that is analytical or technical in nature.
The italics are mine and they are the passages that I think are key and I find it rather like witchcraft that they could nail those qualities in such a brief little test. The final paragraph overstates the case a bit. It makes me sound like a stick in the mud and a wet blanket. I am not that cautious and conservative. I'm also not sure I am so good and making use of uninterrupted time.

I would also point out that, while this is accurate with respect to my corporate job, I'm not sure it's the same when it comes to writing, and perhaps less so with respect to my personal relationships.

But still, in context, it's dead on accurate. Fortune tellers have come a long way.