Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Month That Was - February 2011

The Month That Was - February 2011: The first time I used the snow blower it was kind of fun. A novelty for me. The next couple of times I was grateful to be able to clear my sizeable driveway so quickly. By the fifth time I had to take it out in a month and a half, I was cursing the damn thing as a proxy for all the damn blizzards we've had. I'm beginning to fear having to mow the damn lawn come spring.

This month featured a too-short long weekend to a couple of Atlantic seaboard beach towns that were new to me. More below.

Taxes loom large in my existence these days. Larger, for the moment, than the Kindle edition of Misspent Youth, but that will change soon (or at least by April 15th).

And the check engine light came on in my car again, because I needed to spend a few hours sitting in a cramped waiting room reading a two year old issue of Good Housekeeping while CNN drones away in the corner. I just haven't done enough of that in my life.

[Movies] Why Movies Suck, and Hollywood Too
[Books] Book Look: Krakatoa
[Travel] Cold Beach Mix
[House and Home] House Schooling

[Movies] Why Movies Suck, and Hollywood Too

Why Movies Suck, and Hollywood Too: Um, yeah. To elaborate, I have been making the point for years the TV is vastly superior to film. Now it's looks like I am may be an unheralded prophet. (It looks like that to me anyway.) The trope of movie suckitude has been around for ages, but coupling it with TV's ascendency has been rare. Now a recent article in GQ suggests the zeitgeist may be coming around to my point of view.
"And for all those people who spent years trying to get movies made at all the companies that are now gone, there's now one place to work where you can get respectfully treated and fairly judged," says Rudin. "It's HBO."

So cable has become the custodian of the "good" niche; entities like HBO, Showtime, and AMC have found a business model with which they can satisfy a deep public appetite for long-form drama. Their original series don't need to attract huge audiences; and as a result, any number of ambitious writers, directors, and producers who might long ago have pitched their best stuff to studios now turn to the small screen, because one thing nobody in cable television will ever say to them is "We don't tell stories anymore."
This is all I'm saying. The article author half-seriously blames Top Gun. An acceptable thesis. Worth a read, but it's nothing you haven't heard from me before.

Semi-related, I know pretty close to zero about celebrity culture. Seriously, I was at a friend's for the Oscar telecast and it was populated almost entirely of people I could not name and knew nothing of. But every once in a while, a celebrity gains enough fame or infamy to hit my radar.

Let me just say Charlie Sheen is a god among men. Charlie Sheen shoots rays of fire and poetry out of his hardened fists. He has the blood of a tiger -- a tiger that is a genius and always wins. He is the new drug Huey Lewis was searching for. Anyone who is not Charlie Sheen is a pussy. And a wussy. Charlie Sheen is the man Mel Gibson wishes he could be, and the man Tom Cruise wishes he could love. Charlie Sheen is the chairman and CEO of Charlie Bros. Studios.

[Books] Book Look: Krakatoa

Book Look: Krakatoa by William Manchester: The loudest sound in recorded history occurred on August 27th 1883 when Krakatoa, a wee little island in Indonesia just west of Java, vaporized itself in the last and largest of four major explosions. Krakatoa was one of the most cataclysmic events ever witnessed by humans and there are no end of descriptive superlatives that can be employed, but that's the one that gets me: The Loudest Noise in Recorded History.

It was heard 3000 miles away at the far end of the Indian Ocean. It shattered the eardrums of sailors on ships nearby. It reverberated in shockwave form around the world seven times over the course of the next five days (though only measureable by sensitive instruments). I don't know why that one stands out to me over the final explosion being some multiple times more powerful than the largest nuclear weapon, or the pyroclastic flows that boiled alive folks on the nearby islands, or the tsunamis that killed the majority of the victims, or the rain of hot ash, or the ship hulks found far inland, and so forth. It's the noise that gets me.

The full story of Krakatoa naturally goes way before and beyond the final cataclysmic event itself. This is problematic for the book, because Manchester is not the most focused fellow. Krakatoa is part history, part personal memoir, part science, part commentary, which is fine if there is a firm structure. There isn't. Reading Krakatoa is like having an extended conversation over dinner and drinks with a charming, but scatter-minded, academic who drifts off on long tangents.

We start by going all the way back to pre-colonial history and the first sightings of Krakatoa by the Portuguese and how it came to be named and the evidence for the timing of previous known eruptions. All this is well and good, but could have been aptly summarized in a single chapter instead of several. We then step into the scientific side of things with a long discussion of the genesis of plate tectonics and how it explains the long ridges of volcanic activity that cross the globe, with a generous and fairly romantic aside of the author's personal experiences as a young student doing research in Greenland.

We should now be on about chapter two or three, but we are roughly half-way through the book and we still haven't got to the meat of things. Even in the microcosm of the description of the eruption proper we seem to hop back and forth from island to island and forward and back in time. It was very hard to get a sense for the actual events in a coherent timeline.

Manchester does better in placing things in social context. The advent of the telegraph and other bits and pieces of scientific technology and their role in events is nicely done. The explanation of the Muslim uprising in the days following Krakatoa as being highly dependent on the natives feeling the volcano was a punishment for accepting the wicked ways of the Dutch seems a bit strained. The follow up of the scientific research that came in the wake of the eruption is well filled with minutiae and extraneous detail.

The tale of his own visit to Krakatoa decades later fares better, but it is one of the few humanistic points in the book. And I suppose that is the ultimate problem I have. Despite the narrative form, nothing much about this story seems to be about people. We encounter a few personalities who were present and left documents, but none are fleshed out or sympathetic. There are tiny glimpses of struggle and conflict, but no heroes or cowards that are truly moving. That may not be Manchester's fault. It could be we just know very little about the individuals who were there and survived. It could be that the Dutch never produced charismatic Shackleton or Burton types. But whatever the case, mostly what we are left with is raw information and Manchester's personal enthusiasm. The natural spectacle is awesome, but Wikipedia can handle that.

You see what I'm driving at. The "Should you buy this book?" question gets answered with a qualified no. I can't see Krakatoa thoroughly satisfying anyone's curiosity. It might work for skimming -- if a section doesn't touch you, just skip ahead a bit. That's a plausible plus.

By the way, Krakatoa is growing again, quite rapidly, and is rather active. We may get to see, and hear, it again. This time we'll probably have videos on youtube before the sound reaches us.

[Travel] Cold Beach Mix

Cold Beach Mix I had no business doing any travelling. I really am trying to dedicate myself to the house for the plannable future. But I also really needed a break from house fretting -- it's a very bad sign when you haven't changed your TV off the DIY Network in four days. So last minute trip was planned.

The plan: Get to Washington DC, then make for the Delaware shore, Rehoboth Beach in particular. But "last-minute" means pricey flights. So I decided to drive. Did it make sense?

Plane ticket: $400
Airport Parking: $50
Rental Car: $150
Total: $600, about 4 hours

Gas: $100
Tolls: $50
Total: $150, about 9 hours

So at a cost of 5 hours I saved $450. That implies I value my time at about $90/hour. Of course all such calculations are muddled with risk. Lord knows you can't count on flight timing and you can't monetize the massive annoyances of plane travel. On the other hand, you can't predict traffic and you might come back from your car trip to find you check engine light on (I did).

The biggest risk, in either scenario is the weather. In this case it was a killer snowstorm, but a strangely localized one. I left Dexter at 6 AM and by the time I reached Toledo it was pretty much a white out. I was travelling at about 35 MPH and praying they would not close the turnpike. Honestly, it was as bad winter driving as I have ever encountered. Strangely, back home, not 50 miles north, they found the snowfall trivial. And after an extended slog across a snow-packed turnpike, once I was past Cleveland it was as if someone drew a line and the roads were clear the rest of the way. Still, it added an extra couple hours of driving to the day. So instead of nine hours to DC it was eleven and after a stop for dinner, it was another four to Rehoboth Beach.

I am a lifelong fan of the resort towns on the Atlantic seaboard. I've hit just about all of them in Florida, then on up through Tybee Island outside Savannah, to Hilton Head, up the Carolina to the Outer Banks, and now to Rehoboth Beach and Cape May. After that, there's a big gap until you hit Kennebunkport, ME. The crap-shop charm of the boardwalks, the sea air, and the big summer homes are quite appealing to me.

Still, any beach town loses something in cold, gray weather. The colors grow drab. The gentle ocean breeze becomes a frigid wind. The streets are deserted -- although perhaps not so much. Getting into a restaurant on Saturday and Sunday night was not trivial. There were crowds at many, and the bars tended to be quite full. I can't imagine it was just locals.

Rehoboth Beach is about 4 hours from Washington DC and presumably a good deal closer to Baltimore. It has an unusual dual reputation as being both gay friendly and family friendly. When you pull into town you'll see things like an advertisement for something called "mandance" but you'll also see toy stores and arcades and such. Rehoboth Beach is dominated by one broad main street that runs perpendicular to the shoreline. It is lined with the requisite shops and restaurants and bars and such. Cars are allowed but it's very walker friendly. It lacks any sort of central architectural theme that I could see, other than what might be called "beach town cute". Follow it less than a mile down to a nice long boardwalk with more of the same. I strongly suspect this is alive with activity in season.

It's tough to get a really good feel for a place when it is out of its usual character. I suspect summer nights in Rehoboth might be over to the lively of the spectrum, but the existence and proximity of some clearly pricey homes and rental properties suggests that things rarely get out of hand. Reputation also suggests that the 20-something-beach-weekend-hook-ups tend to occur in the next town south called Dewey Beach, although there are some high-end looking beach rentals down there too.

Even in the winter, though, the beach is quite lovely, but what it may not be is the best place for swimming. Reports (mostly from Trip Advisor) suggest that efforts to replenish the sand have resulted in sharp drop offs and waves that crest close enough to shore to make it awkward.

Not sure how I feel about Rehoboth Beach. I don't think it would be my first choice. It would work for a weekend with friends as a getaway from DC/Baltimore, and I suspect that is what it is mostly used for. But I don't think it's worth a jaunt across the country.

Perhaps a bit more interesting is Cape May, New Jersey. You can reach Cape May from Rehoboth via a car ferry. It's about ten minutes to the ferry in Lewes, De, an hour and a half ride over ($70), then another ten minute drive to Cape May proper.

Unlike Rehoboth Beach, Cape May has a layout closer to an organic beach town. Instead of one wide main street there is a grid of small residential streets peppered throughout with shops and restaurant, with the two major areas being the beachfront and a closed off segment of Washington St. three or four blocks inland. The natural layout of the place is enhanced by the numerous Victorian houses that populate the side streets. Most seem to be in excellent repair and many have been converted to bed and breakfasts or rentals. It makes Cape May seem like something for substantial than just another beach town. Like Rehoboth, it seems upscale enough not to give off the vibe of a place that gets overwhelmed by Jersey Shore guidos (but I suppose you never know). Nicely done.

But there are downsides too. Parking was no problem in the winter, but I suspect in season it is troublesome since most of it seems to be street side. Nor is the beach free in season; you need to buy a pass: $5 for a day, $10 for three days. Preservation, such as it is, requires a certain amount of control, it seems.

While I think I prefer Cape May to Rehoboth, again, I don't think it would merit a visit were I not already local. On the other hand, Atlantic City is not far away. I could see a trip including a mix of Atlantic City gambling and beach time in Cape May. Possibly. But I would more likely head to points north or south for an Atlantic Ocean fix.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Annapolis. Not a beach town but we stopped for lunch on the way back and I must admit I would take it over either of the two beach towns in anything but perfect swimming weather, but of course I knew this. I have done it to death over the years, which is why it wasn't the final destination. Great place, with history and sailing and excellent food. Don't miss the mussels at McGarvey's.

[House and Home] House Schooling

House Schooling: I may have mentioned (have I?) that I am actually living in the house now. As a result, everything I have to get done is in my face every minute. Like life, it's all about patience and priorities.

I have some big ideas: I have a vision of a hot tub and plunge pool out back, and I think maybe there is an opportunity for a small addition off the master bedroom to add a big walk-in closet and storage area. But I also know I am living with a 17-year-old roof and water heater. Both seem to be functioning well, but...priorities.

There are small things I'd like to do: Add vanity lighting in the master bath and get a reverse osmosis water filter system installed (it's very cool). There a couple places I have picked out for Roman blinds. But I'm still waiting on the handy-man to finish the shelving in the mud room and the master bath (projects now four weeks on...). Then there are the furnishings. I have no furniture in the living room, dining room or kitchen. I need to outfit the basement bar. And oh yeah, there are three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs that are also empty. I like to think of all this less as "empty" and more as "a blank canvas". Waiting is good, I tell myself. I need to be on guard against buying something I won't like just because of my impatience to have everything done NOW.

Of course, before any of that comes getting my old place sorted out and sold or rented. That's a time sink and wallet drainer right there. On the other hand, no hurry. It's beginning to look like there's no point is selling. After 15 years of ownership I would have to take a loss. Might as well rent it for what I can and hang on to it for a while.

It is OK for things to be unfinished -- Life is a marathon, not a sprint -- Be accepting of unresolved issues. All this is advice I would, and probably do, dole out regularly, yet I struggle tasting my own medicine. So whatever the frustrations with home ownership, I have no regrets. Facing all this was the whole point.

Well, at least it was one of the points. The other point was financial. Buy at the bottom of the market (I hope), live here for another 15 or 20 years, at which point I will be close to retirement and hopefully have a nice profit if/when I downsize.

But the big point was that I did not have to be the person I was at age 49 for the rest of my life. I should still be learning, changing, trying new things, taking reasonable risks, and generally improving myself and gaining wisdom through experience. In fact, I should be better at it now than I was 25 years ago having had all that practice. So far, in those terms, the house has been a huge success.

At some point, when all this becomes second nature, I will stop boring you with house stories. Either that or I will start to go off on rants like I used to about travel. If the later, I expect that may coincide with the need to mow the damn lawn.