Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Month That Was - May 2011

The Month That Was - May 2011: We went from one of the snowiest winters recent memory to the rainiest spring in 25 years. Honestly, I feel like some kind of farmer doing nothing but talking about the weather, but it's been pretty intense and it has a much greater affect on me than it used to. The good news is that we did have two straight days of rain free weather so I go to cut a relatively dry lawn and was able to finish it in under two hours. You can't imagine how excited I was. Seriously, I did a brief but poignant happy dance when I was done. (A friend of mine set the over/under for me contracting with a mowing service for the 4th of July.)

Somehow, I feel busy despite that fact that I didn't do much this month. Got a quick trip down to FL done get Miss Anna packed up after her last freshmen year final. Details below. I skipped out on my planned trip to NYC for Memorial Day, just because I put it off for so long that the price became exorbitant. Lame, I know.

I am writing something, it's just too early to discuss yet.

I bought two new pairs of running shoes and got my road bike in order. Now I'm in the market for a mountain bike because I have really taken to running the trails at nearby Pinckney Recreation Area, including the world famous Potowatami Trail, and I want to try biking them this year. I have not ordered from them yet, but Bikes Direct seems to have bikes with pretty solid components available for about half retail price. Of course you have to tack on another $100-150 for your local bike shop to build it, but still, as cheap as it gets. I'll let you know how it works out.

Just seems like I'm ticking off the months without too much drama. A blessing I suppose.

[Good Links] Top Grade Linkage
[Travel] Reliving in Florida
[Books] Book Look: This Side of Paradise
[Detroit] Failed City Porn

[Good Links] Top Grade Linkage

Top Grade Linkage: A quick round up of some good reading and miscellaneous nonsense:
  • The story of a master thief.
    Blanchard almost overshot the castle, slowing himself just enough by skidding along a pitched gable. Sliding down the tiles, arms and legs flailing for a grip, Blanchard managed to save himself from falling four stories by grabbing a railing at the roof's edge...The real trick was ensuring that the spring-loaded mechanism the [gem] was sitting on didn't register that the weight above it had changed. Of course, he had that covered, too: He reached into his pocket and deftly replaced Elisabeth's bejeweled hairpin with the gift-store fake.
    I would have thought such people only existed on TV shows.

  • I recently had a problem with ants living in some rotted wood siding. I'm guessing they were some innocuous breed and not Argentinean Ants or I would be in real trouble.
    I have found ants in my underwear. Lots of them, which I didn't find until I put the underwear on. As a person who has had ants in his underwear, however, I have to say that what makes their presence particularly irksome is not the momentary discomfort but rather the knowledge of why they're there. They're not just passing through, you see, on their way to somewhere else. They're not in your underwear by accident. They're nation-building. They're extending the range of their civilization, and they're doing it in your drawers.

  • An actual night club bill from Vegas. Nearly $200,000 for a night in Tryst, a night club at Wynn. Nearly 150 large in champagne. Nearly $200 for Fiji water. Note the tip. Actually tips, plural. $29581 gratuity. Then another $29581 under "other tip". Then of course, there's the gratuity line so you can fill in more. Ah, Vegas...

  • The market is a cruel a mistress for the writer.
    Mr. Grossman, who has been compared to both J.K. Rowling and Jay McInerney, tried his hand at literary fiction before turning to fantasy. He says supernatural fiction is fast becoming a dominant strain of contemporary literature. 'We are the mainstream,' he says. 'Literary fiction is a subculture.'
    Time for me to put some vampires or zombies in my stuff, I guess. Actually this is not all that new. Literature has always had a supernatural bent: Gods in greek theatre, horrors of Hell in Dante, witches and ghosts in Shakespeare, etc. Fiction is lies, after all.

  • Robin Hanson discusses how irrational bike helmet regulations are from a safety perspective. Actually, he's commenting on the nature of status as it relates to safety regulations. But bike helmets, as you know, are one of my personal hobby horses. I'm in favor of a world where riding without a helmet is a source of glory.

  • Paul Theroux is always interesting on travel. His upcoming Tao of Travel will likely be a must.

[Travel] Reliving in Florida

Reliving in Florida: Another run down to North Miami, this time to pick up Miss Anna at the end of her freshman year. It is astounding how much crap can be fit in a closet-sized dorm room. Honestly, when you figure in the cost of the plane tickets, rental car, hotel rooms, and package shipping, it would have been cheaper to have her leave everything for charity and just replace it when she got home. In any event, it was a full day of disassembling, packing, cleaning, and hauling packages to UPS (whose agents we got to know on a first name basis). Of course there were good-byes to be said, both sad and happy; a fair amount of dramatic emotional churn.

Not just for Anna. All sorts of cues had me reliving my freshman year. Smoldering conflicts brought to a head at the last minute before leaving. Glad to be done with school, sad to miss your friends. Knowing you should be an adult and make use of the summer, but not really having a good idea how. Not knowing what to do with yourself, and so acting with ego and false confidence on confused and counterproductive intentions. Just generally being a mess of a human being. It's a frustrating and frightening time of life, although you don't know any better. And there are no words to make it easier. Even the promise of having an eighteen-year-old's health wouldn't make me want to relive that time.

Funny thing is that as soon as the boxes were shipped, we reverted to formula. Kate and Anna and I have been on innumerable little vacations together, all immensely pleasurable, and the next morning we found ourselves bombing north for Orlando, Universal Studios in our sights.

We checked into the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, one of the three that are located inside the grounds itself (along with Loews Portofino Bay and the Hard Rock). It's a decent enough place, nice pool, lots of activities, free water taxi to the key points in the park. But there are problems. We had a horrendous time getting housekeeping to make up the room. By the time 5 o'clock came around we started making inquiries. The strange thing was that everyone reacted like it was completely normal. By 7pm an angry call from me to the Manager on Duty finally got some action. Kate's poignant comment: "Do they realize that a room is no good unless you can actually use it?" There were other service oddities, such as general confusion about when the park opened for early admission, but I will say there was no sign of rudeness or disaffection among the staff. It's a nice place and it's possible we just had one bad experience, but I would try Hard Rock first if I had to do it again.

As far as theme parks go Universal Studios is as good as Disney. It's not quite so sprawling across the land and it sticks to more traditional amusement park stuff, but these are not bad things. Universal consists of three sections: 1) Universal Studios Park, 2) Islands of Adventure, and 3) Universal Citywalk. In theory Universal Studios is a "movie themed" park, Islands of Adventure contains variously themed "islands", in practice most of the "islands" in Island of Adventure are movie themed, so really there is little difference between the two proper amusement parks. Citywalk is kind of like Downtown Disney, basically a high-energy outdoor mall -- restaurants, shops, etc.

Both the amusement parks are heavy into "3-D experiences" which used to be pretty pathetic, if I recall correctly from the early Star Wars themed ones I saw at Disney many years ago. The latest ones are killer, though, and the Harry Potter one at Islands of Adventure is truly astonishing. Essentially it's a mild roller coaster through a darkened building which, in concert with 3-d animations, animatronics, and plain old fire and water, makes for quite a wild ride. You find yourself playing quidditch then being attacked by dementors and so forth. Just slightly less interesting was the hot ride from a couple of years ago, Spiderman 3-D. Same sort of thing.

One of the best things about staying at an in-park hotel is that you get early access to the park. One hour early. So you can get in at 8am instead of 9am. I don't think we waited more than 5 minutes for any ride and we pretty much covered the whole of Islands of Adventure, including lunch, by noon. Nice. I'm not much for theme parks, but Universal Studios is a good time. Reliving childhood there would be something I could stand.

[Books] Book Look: This Side of Paradise

Book Look: This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Keeping with the above theme of college days, my main read this month was F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise. Note that while I have linked this to the Kindle version on Amazon (free), it is long past its copyright expiration so you can snag it for free from just about anywhere on-line. is a good place to start for the Kindle averse.

This is the story of a wealthy, spoiled boy with a flighty mother and disconnected father. He is sent to boarding school; goes on to Princeton; falls in love and has his heart broken. Along the way, almost tangentially, his parents die, he fights in WW1, and goes broke. We are given detailed descriptions of his innermost thoughts and feelings at school, especially at Princeton, his impressions of those around him, and his evolving desires and ideas. But his reaction to his parents deaths is little more than annoyance, we hear nothing about his war experiences despite being in combat, and his reaction to the vaporization of his family fortune is blase.

It sounds reversed doesn't it? The huge dramatic events in his life are mere sideshow, but all the details of his identity and ego development are the topic of the book. And that is a stroke of genius, because that is what it is like to be that age: completely self-consumed. The self-obsession of the main character is exaggerated contrast to the external events around him. Clever way to zero in on a young man's ego.

This Side of Paradise is F. Scott Fitzgerald's version of "The Book Everyone has In Them." For most it's the "college experience/coming of age book" although there are variations that have nothing to do with college. It is the documentation of the painful birth of an adult, or at least the start of the ongoing process of adulthood. Someone we know once wrote a book called Apple Pie along the same lines.

The eternal commonality is there. The deluded self-opinion, the disregard for that which does not directly affect you, the misguided attempts at self-definition and the corresponding attraction to charismatic, pseudo-intellectual ideas and people. Also there is the pain and uncertainty, which in retrospect from a fully lived life can seem almost quaint and precious, but as lived it is devastating.

This Side of Paradise is set pre-WW1 for the most part, so despite the familiar themes and feelings, things are different. Most of the young characters speak in florid semi-cryptic poetics, more concerned with the impression their words leave as opposed to clarity of communication. But there is still shameless college pranksterism and debauchery, here among the elite at Princeton, and which I witness in Ann Arbor to this day. The writing often seems self-indulgent, but again that kind of plays into the themes. This was his first novel and Fitzgerald was not quite Fitzgerald yet, but the core of the talent that eventually produced Tender is the Night and Gatsby is discernible.

Should you read This Side of Paradise? Not until you have read Gatsby or Tender. It doesn't measure up to those in any way. Allow me some self-indulgence and suggest you read Paradise after reading Apple Pie. I'd be curious to hear what parallels you could draw.

[Detroit] Failed City Porn

Failed City Porn: Something I haven't done in a while: Completely gratuitous stores about the degradation of Detroit.
  • Illiteracy in Detroit is around 47%. That's not a surprise. Though I was born in Detroit, I grew up in the city of Southfield which is on Detroit's northern border, just across the famed Eight Mile Road. Southfield's illiteracy rate is 24%, which is third-world-ish. It was a nasty place to grow up, but at least we could read and write our way out back then. I guess maybe we all did.

  • One booming business in Detroit: demolishing abandoned homes.

  • The Irish trad/punk band Flogging Molly wrote their latest set of songs in and about Detroit. They admit it makes little difference: "I don't have any answers. I sing for other people's frustrations." Just hope the songs are catchy.

  • In contrast, Grand Rapids (second largest city in MI and furniture capitol of the world) was labeled one of America's Dying Cities" and they responded with a video of pretty much the whole city lip-synching "American Pie". Not sure whether that actually makes sense, but it's pretty cool.