Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Month That Was - November 2012

The Month That Was - November 2012: That sad thing about posting this so late is that I am a ready under the gun to December going. Sorry about my tardiness, but it's been astoundingly busy. I have spent little time at home or in my routines since before Thanksgiving.

Unlike in Game of Thrones, winter is already here. I had a nice 10 day swing out west with absolutely perfect weather (see below) and returned to good old Michigan to a 27 degrees cold snap. Now, 27 degrees is not that bad -- there will be times yet to come that make 27 sound balmy -- but it is most definitely winter.

[Travel] Call of the West
[Tech, Cars] Machine Rebellion
[TV] Three Step Up

[Travel] Call of the West

Call of the West: This was my longest trip out west yet. As I have for the last I-don't-know-how-many years (maybe 8? 10?) I spent Thanksgiving in the Southwest. This originally started because it was easy to lose myself in Vegas over the holiday, but it eventually extended into destination hopping over the weekend and sometimes longer. This time I flew out nearly a week early and headed north of Vegas to the Valley of Fire to run a half-marathon.

Valley of Fire is a Nevada State Park about 45 minutes north of Las Vegas. If you have experienced any of the red rock area Parks, the landscape will be familiar: bizarrely-shaped, immense, looming rock formations dropped on to otherwise featureless ground. It's not as dramatic as some places, say Bryce Canyon or Monument Valley, but it's the same flavor. Each year they run a series of races through the park -- 5K, 10K, half-marathon, and marathon. I ran the half-marathon (13.1 miles), which is about my maximum distance.

At a pre-run spaghetti chow-down in a local motel discussions turned to the course. One person claimed to have driven it earlier in the day and said that there was a large hill at the beginning but the rest wasn't too bad. Another claimed that it was very hilly but you don't notice it because of the beautiful landscape. Well, it was very hilly from start to finish -- not a flat longer than 50 yards -- and fairly steep. Climb, plunge, climb, plunge, repeat. And it was beautiful, but believe me, not so beautiful that you didn't notice the pain. Toughest race I ever ran. Some of the smarter people simply walked every uphill and flew through the downhills. I was foolish enough to try to run all the climbs but that only lasted about the first 8 miles. I did a good bit of walking on the last five -- and I rarely walk during a race. I ended up about 15 minutes off my personal best, which was better than I expected given how hard it was. The best thing? Post-race recovery was chocolate milk and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Awesome! It was like being a little kid again. Beats Gatorade and Powerbars any day.

The downside was that I was really too tired to do any hiking afterwards. I was able to drive back through the park and appreciate the scenery a bit more but I couldn't even force myself to wander down any of the trails -- just had nothing left in the tank. Still, you can check out some Valley of Fire photos from a previous visit.

From Valley of Fire the next stop was Sedona, AZ. I had been to Sedona before, but I stayed in a resort outside town and really only got into the main tourist area for a couple of hours. This time I stayed right in the main area at Amara Resort, a very nice place located well below the main street. To get out was to climb the equivalent several flights of stairs, but the setting was really astounding. It's a fine place all around. Good service, free shuttle service for those not inclined to climb, free yoga class every morning, and the pool and courtyard are definitively lovely. There are two luxury resorts right in the main part of town, Amara is the less expensive of the two. The high end on is called L'Auberge and it is just down the street from Amara and about twice the price. I can't understand why since it's hard for me to see where it is that much better.

Sedona seems to have been created just for the views -- and they are spectacular in 360 degrees. Actually it starts on the way in if you are coming from the north, which I was. Just south of Flagstaff you branch off onto Route 89A which is a soaring wind up through the mountains then back down through a heavily forested area leaving you in the heart of town. Just stand on the street and turning around -- the background defies belief with red rock mountains the look as though they have been painted into the landscape. Sit at one of the outdoor cafes and it's like being in the middle of a National Geographic 3D extravaganza.

What's even cooler is the most of the mountains and rocks can be hiked and climbed fairly easily. My first hike was a climb of Doe Mountain which is a relatively moderate, but scenic hike to the top of a mesa (Doe Mountain is not a mountain, but a mesa). Once up there are pathways crisscrossing about half of the mesa and the other half can be easily navigated, although there are not actual paths. The views from the top were amazing.

What was not amazing was that my camera decided to fail. My once trusty Nikon D70 DSLR ceased to work while on this trip. Something wrong with the shutter mechanism. I took it to the local camera store and they almost immediately said I would have to send it to Nikon to be fixed. Given it's age and obsolete technology it's probably not worth fixing. Sad -- that camera had accompanied me all over, from Hawaii to Tulum to Newfoundland. Vaya con dios, old pal.

So I was reduced to using my camera phone but still, it's hard not to get great photos around Sedona. I even tried to capture a few videos, but the problem with videos was all the other hikers kept talking. Standing on top of Doe Mountain trying to capture the stunning landscape from high above and some idiot standing ten yards away from me decides to take a call on his cell phone. Loudly. Won't it be sweet ten years from now when I reminisce about this trip and I fire up a video only to hear this clown and his wife planning dinner?

Even that, however, cannot ruin the beauty. For hike number two the next day I chose the paradigmatic hike for Sedona: Cathedral Rock Trail. This is a pretty steep one, mostly climbing over slickrock. Not for those with a bad fear of heights -- fortunately, I only have a mild fear of heights, but I did notice that weak knee reaction kicking in on a couple of occasions. I noticed that anaerobic burn in my lungs on a couple of occasions, too. Technically interesting hiking and lovely views, although be prepared to butt-ride some of the steeper passes on the way down.

So for a couple of days I had the wonderful routine of getting up in the morning and going for a gorgeous hike then retreating to my resort and sitting out at the pool for the afternoon, thanks to the unseasonable warmth. A routine I could really get used to.

I should point out that there are things about Sedona that could grate on the nerves, the primary one being the unrelenting new agey-ness of the place. It not a youthful place either -- it can seem as if every last-chance drugged-out hippie-shaman pulled what was left of his gray hair into a ponytail and settled here. Also, the restaurants are really only mediocre. Southwest cuisine is everywhere, and at each place declared to be genuine, which I suppose this being the Southwest, it literally is. But all this is tolerable.

I need to spend about a week in Sedona -- and recapture that routine. With a proper camera this time. I vow to make this happen.

Coming up fast on Thanksgiving, the next stop had to be Vegas. The routine is set. Hit the major sportsbooks to find the best lines for the NFL games. Try out the new restaurants and enjoy the old favorites. Poker -- possibly, but that's getting to be a bit hit or miss for me. Stripwalk under the flashing lights. For me it's as traditional as turkey and stuffing. And in lieu of turkey and stuffing I had Gordon Ramsay cook me up a filet mignon at his steakhouse. How's that can of cranberry sauce working out for ya?

There's actually quite a bit of change going on in Vegas of late. There is an enormous development going on between the Flamingo and Imperial Palace called The Linq -- it's going to have plenty or bar/restaurant and retail, along with a bowling alley (which is a brilliant addition to the Strip), but the big attraction will be the observation wheel, like the one London is famous for, to be called The High Roller. This is tentatively scheduled for a late 2013 opening. It will likely be delayed, so I suspect it will be a highlight of my 2014 Thanksgiving.

Also, the Imperial Palace is no longer the Imperial Palace. It has been renamed "The Quad" and is also under heavy construction, although still open. It's a pretty low end place; I've never stayed there, but back when I played table games it was my go-to destination. Low limits, zany people, always a high energy place. They had, and still have, dealertainers -- dealers dressed as hollywood icons who often dance about with the music. Vastly more fun to play at a $10 table there than say a $25 table in a morgue-casino like the Venetian. It was also one of the most wonderfully kitschy places ever. It looked like Dr. Hahn's evil fortress from Enter the Dragon. Considering the new name I'm guessing it's going to be remade along a college campus theme. Sad. I dropped a buttload of money there to demon blackjack at the height of my gambling. (OK, maybe it's not so bad that it's gone.)

Another thing that's quite noticeable to me is the increase in Thanksgiving traffic. Wednesday before is my favorite day. It's as empty as Vegas gets, which is not very empty, and most of the people there are Asian or European. I suppose as soon as their early Thanksgiving dinner with the relatives is over, folks start heading into town for the long weekend. By 8 or 9 on Thanksgiving night, it looks like any other Thursday with the usual cross section of drunken idiots, porn slappers, dazed tourists and other denizens of the Strip.

The holiday weekend proper is a complete zoo, so I get out on Friday morning. This time I got out to Death Valley -- it involved a bit of spider dodging on the roads. You see what appears to be a mouse or chipmunk slowly crossing the road and as you get closer you realize it's a tarantula. It is, I think, the tail end of their mating season so they get active. It's a little creepy to think about, so let's not.

If you have a picture of Death Valley in your head, it is probably an endless expanse of dry flat land, and there is certainly that aspect to it, but it really is one of the most overlooked National Parks (it is also, I think, the largest). Peppered throughout the park are fascinating little sites. There is enormous variety. I was able to take my SUV on a treacherous trail -- Titus Canyon Trail that went from a savage washboard road, to a twisty climbing rock passage into the mountains then back down through a flat dirt road between towering canyon walls and then back out into the desert in the morning, followed by a visit to Scotty's Castle, a lonely mansion built on one of the thre oasis in the Valley -- with a fascinating story about it -- then on to Ubehebe Crater, a dormant volcano that invites you to slide through the loose volcanic rock down into the center, then burns out your lungs as you try to stagger back up through it. A full day of adventure.

There are two lodge facilities inside the park, the Furnace Creek Inn and Furnace Creek Resort. The resort is a broad, family oriented facility -- Motel 6 level rooms, a western themed bar and restaurant, pool, shuffleboard, bike rental, etc. The Inn is more adult and luxurious. It has a decent stylish restaurant where I spent a couple of dinners sitting out on the porch and watching the sunset over the mountains. The Inn is also about double the price of the Resort (which is expensive enough), and you can use the facilities of either. They are both overpriced, the Inn especially so, but because of the vastness of Death Valley National Park you pay for their convenience. The nearest town is Beattie only a few miles outside the northern entrance but it is a hardscrabble desert town with only a handful of run down motels. From there you stretch out to about 45 minutes to an hour away to Pahrump, famous for its legal brothels, where you can find a decent mid-range property. If you want a proper vacation lodging you either pay the price to stay in the park, or you are two and half hours away in Vegas.

Not everyone is unaware of Death Valley's charms. Cost and obscurity aside, the park properties can fill up on busy weekends. Families in the Resort, couples mostly in the Inn. But there is a definite sense among everyone that you're in on a secret. Three or four nights in Death Valley would be a tremendous active family vacation. (Photos from my first trip back in '07.)

Now winding down, I headed back to Vegas for a couple more nights. I must say the Vegas portions of this trip were pretty pedestrian. The hotels I stayed in were VDARA and Elara. Both were fine, well positioned, and comparatively inexpensive, but nothing special. However much exploring I do on the Strip I always seems to end up spending most of my time in Bellagio or Caesars. I should probably just confine my rooms to those spots in the future -- Bellagio rooms have been renovated since I last stayed there and it remains the classiest if not the flashiest Strip property. Caesar's has add a new high end tower and is adding another one to be run by the guys who run Nobu, the fancy-schmancy sushi restaurants. Good to se development activity return to Vegas after the recessionary crash.

I have a system for making football bets. It has served me well in that I have never done worse than break more or less even with two or three nice wins over the years. Still, this year it kicked out bets on a whole bunch of games and as any gambler will tell you, betting lots of games increases the likelihood of ending pretty close to even -- which I did, exactly.

But traditions aren't about generating shock and awe. They are about comfort and familiarity. As weird as my personal Thanksgiving tradition is, there's no denying that's what I get.

[Tech, Cars] Machine Rebellion

Machine Rebellion: They're turning on me. The Rise of the Machines has begun. My laptop -- my sole computer -- now into what must be it's six or seventh year has started making angry grinding noise (the fan) and what's worse, it's eensy 128 gig drive is closing in on 70% full.

My camera decided to stop working. After years of trusty, if not particularly convenient, service, my Nikon D70s developed a nasty problem with the shutter. I was out in Sedona at the time, hoping to take some shots of the astounding scenery, and found myself stuck with naught but my camera phone (and a notoriously weak camera phone it is - HTC Trophy). Interestingly there was a camera shop right across from where I was staying. I was pretty sure it was toast, but I took it to the fellow there in the hopes that it might be one of those known problems that had a simple, magical fix. Nope. His answer: "You going to have to send it to Nikon for repair." Probably not worth it for 6 megapixels and no automatic image stabilization. Still, with a little attention and a light hand, it took some amazing pictures. See my galleries.

Lastly, my car started burning oil. This may be partially my fault. I tend to run up about 5000 miles before I change the oil. Last time I took it in for a change, I was way down. Most of the oil had burned off. The check engine light had come on, but it comes on for all sorts of reasons and I tend to just ignore it, so if it was trying to warn me about the oil, well, that's what you get for crying wolf. This has triggered in my mind the question of whether it's time to buy a new car. Buying a new car rarely makes economic sense -- it is almost always cheaper to get your current ride repaired. Look at it this way: Worst case is that you have $5000 in repairs every couple of years to keep the thing going. That's going to be less than your payments and increased insurance over that same time period on a new car. Reliability and durability-wise things would have to get awfully bad for it to be cheaper to get a new car. Every extra year you can eek out of your ride is money in your pocket. Buying a new car is a matter of convenience and, frankly, self-image.

Aside: It makes me wonder how many more cars I will own in my life. My current car, along with the previous two, were purchased new and owned for 9+ years each. (For the record: '84 Celica, '93 Camry, '02 Camry.) If I were to get a '13 model, extrapolation tells me the one after that would be around 2023. If I spend a decade with a '23 model, that would make me 73 years old when I was ready to get the next one. A possibility if I stay healthy. Of course, I was really hoping for a flying car by that time, but oh well. After that -- that takes me to my mid-eighties at which point I probably shouldn't be driving, or better yet, rich enough to have a chauffeur. Of course, if you factor in that cars get ever more durable and that there is an inverse correlation between annual driving mileage and age, I am probably looking at 2 more cars purchased for the rest of my life. If I buy, it may as well be something special.

But the point is that I am being betrayed by technology. All at once. I should look at these things as an opportunity. Get a new camera -- smaller, cheaper, and better in every way. A new laptop -- or better yet, step into the 21st century and get an ultrabook and a tablet, or maybe one of those nifty Microsoft Surface dealies. And as much as I think most new car technology is unnecessary and counterproductive complication there are things that would be nice. Voice interface and social networking are crap, but I've rented cars with backup cameras and found them very useful, and the latest music and mapping technology would probably be nice.

I should be pleased about all this shouldn't I? As long as I have new tech to buy, I'm still in the game and still keeping up on things. Living long and prospering. If I didn't need new tech, then either the world has stagnated or I have.

[TV] Three Step Up

Three Step Up: Three shows, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, and Dexter demonstrated a nice jump up in quality this year. None are remotely close to pantheon status, but it was nice to see at least an upgrade in quality.

Dexter - My long time favorite guilty pleasure was getting less and less pleasurable. It's the sort of thing where as quality slowly deteriorates over the seasons you start to wonder what the hell you are doing still watching it. A funny thing about TV versus movies: Part of the appeal of TV is making an almost personal connection to the characters. Movies can survive on plot and actions, and in fact, often have little time for real character development and interpersonal evolution. TV is just the opposite, it lives and dies by the appeal of it's characters. No matter how good you are at action and plot, you can't hold eyeballs for 100 episodes. The only way to do that is to create characters that people feel compelled to spend time with. Often they are folks you just like to hang out with -- Seinfeld, Big Bang Theory -- sometimes they are awful people but so magnetic you can't look away -- Tony Soprano, Don Draper -- but whatever the case, you watch out of a desire to see what they are up to and how they are going about their lives, just as if they were real.

Dexter has always been borderline in that respect. While the lead character, and his portrayal by Michael C. Hall, has always be fun, the rest of the cast and B-stories have been excruciating. The first couple of seasons, as we got into the back story of Dexter and the newness of a serial killer as a good guy, it was all in naughty fun. Then things went steadily south. By the end of last year they were really pulling stuff out of their posteriors with ghosts and sister-love and all sorts of random crap. The only questions became, was Dex going to do a kill in this episode or do I have to suffer the side characters again. Degrading the connection to the one valuable character prompted the question: "Wait, why do I watch this?"

This season made some significant steps in clearing that up. Almost a reboot, they began by acting as if the last three season never happened, or at least dismissing them. They're still struggling with the right way to handle villains -- the arcs are not smooth, they dwell and hint then abruptly close the storylines -- but they've put Dexter at risk and heightened the conflict by adding the risk that he will bring his sister down with him and making his rationalization get ever more precarious. That's made it interesting again -- or at least a worthy guilty pleasure again.

The Walking Dead - I had dropped this show from regular viewing before the end of the first season. It was clearly not even up to the level of an acceptable guilty pleasure. Every episode seemed to be 45 minutes of exposition and useless whining spiced up with 5 minutes of zombie kills. I avoided this season but then I read a couple of reviews that said everything changed. And it did. The big thing that changed was the characters stopped pontificating about moral dilemmas and screeching about how you can't make this or that sacrifice, even when their survival depended on it. It was abysmal dialogue and horrendous drama. Now they do what needs to be done to survive and shut their traps about it, at times achieving a sort of riveting badassery. If it makes sense to say a zombie apocalypse drama has gotten more realistic, then it has. It's still borderline. It leans heavily into being misery porn -- things just keep getting more and more awful -- and the characters are not particularly likeable or interesting, even the good guys. Still, in this season we've gotten a more complex and curious world, along with hints that progress to dealing with zombies is being made and there is an ever so small sliver of hope for the species. So I'm back watching it for now, though I'm not sure how long it will last without any characters I particularly care about.

Boardwalk Empire - Terence Winter is the main brain behind Boardwalk Empire and coming from a Sopranos background as he does, comparisons are begged. Bottom line: Not Even Close. Boardwalk... has never been in danger of losing my attention. It is a truly solid mob drama -- great acting, strong stories, lots of hard guy action, and a full dose of HBO-level sex. The characters are complex and involving, although in a moral sense they are basically the same -- they do terrible things but have bright spots in their souls; bright spots that can either be strengths or weaknesses on a varying basis.

There is no subtlety in Boardwalk Empire. Everything is a plain as a lump of granite and it hits as hard when dropped on your head. Oh there are feeble attempts at something deeper. Portrayals of the oppression of women and blacks are appropriately progressive. Small events can have unintended consequences. But for the most part it's who's taking advantage of whom. It's all done with the utmost professionalism and attention to craft, but there is no high concept behind it. The story of The Sopranos was the story of human capacity for self-delusion. There was a mob drama backdrop but the gangster conflicts were short and sweet and only existed to move the personal story of the characters forward towards the high concept. Boardwalk... is all about being a mobster and maneuvering for power given whatever core of humanity you have in you. In The Sopranos, being a mobster was a tool for illustrating the human condition. That is the difference between craft and art.

Which is not to discount craft. I'll watch the hell out of Boardwalk.... It's ripping good stuff. Fine, fine entertainment. Great fodder for writing and comment. And about the best we can hope for in the post-Golden Age.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Month That Was - October 2012

The Month That Was - October 2012: The most wonderful, glorious event of the month was the final lawn mowing the year. I survived another season long battle with the demon lawn, even at one point finding a common enemy in Creeping Charlie (don't ask).

The strangest thing that is going on is that I don't feel like reading. I usually have two books going; one in the car that I read in snippets (during lunch and so forth) and one for reading a chapter or two prior to bed. The Coup, reviewed below, was my last car novel and my bedtime reading was a continuation of my entirely self-indulgent reading of the young adult Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, which I will likely review in it's entirety a couple of years from now when the series is complete. Since completing those I am totally unenthusiastic about their replacements (which I won't identify just yet). What I would normally do is just pitch them get something new but the problem isn't the material, the problem is finding desire for reading anything at all. this is a new experience for me. I don't know what is going on. Some sort of low-level depression maybe? Perhaps it's my subconscious telling me to do more writing instead. Whatever it is I hope I figure it out soon.

I also had my first experience with vandals at my new house. We have street lights all over the neighborhood, including one in from of my house. Although they look sturdy, the poles are not metal, they are fiberglass and apparently some kids (I'm guessing local high school types) have taken to pulling hard enough on them until they snap. The kids then flee, usually baseball batting a mailbox or two along the way. None of this is going to cost me any money other than a possible increase in neighborhood association dues. It causes me no fear. I know this is the sort of thing kids do and frankly they could do a lot more damage than that. Still, I find myself angry and thinking of how badly I like to get a hold the miserable little brats with my own ball bat. I am now on the direct opposite side of the fence when it comes to teenage antics than I was as a youth. I am now exactly the sort the mean old man who young'uns like to trash for kicks. My journey to the dark side is complete.

Oh and I heard there's an election or something going on. I don't care.

[Books] Book Look: The Coup
[Travel] Oh See OC
[Football] Pigskin Potluck

[Books] Book Look: The Coup, by John Updike

Book Look: The Coup by John Updike: John Updike was probably the last great novelist there will ever be, by which I mean the last novelist with any mainstream cultural power. He came up mid-20th century along with all the other glory boys at William Shawn's New Yorker and outlasted most of them. He both preceded and outlasted the last literary movement, the fast burning Beats. Who is there to replace him? Haruki Murakami is deeply, but not broadly, popular. Tom Wolfe is bombastic and audacious, but not much of a stylist and will always be thought of as a journalist first. Jonathan Frazen? He's a magazine cover boy and certainly on every hipster's kindle, but he seems more a creature of zeitgeist than organic influence. The point is not whether they or any other novelists are good enough. The fact is nobody reads mainstream fiction; it is culturally insignificant like all forms of art except film and television -- so it's really silly to even consider a novelists cultural influence. Updike was the final link to the heroic age of the American novel.

Updike's big splash was the classic Rabbit, Run back in 1960 (already well into the waning of the novel). He gained a reputation as commentator on the state of America -- especially the suburban middle class. The reality is that Updike was not so limited in scope and always had a broader view, as evidenced by The Coup.

At first look, The Coup couldn't be further from Updike's wheelhouse. It is the story of a monstrous dictator of an hellhole of an African country. This dictator, one Hiram Felix Ellellou, known in college as "Happy", has deposed the king of the nation in the name of Marx and Mohammed, although his power seems to stem mostly from the awe of the peasantry in his big black Mercedes and his willingness to have his henchmen kill or imprison the anyone who is inconvenient to him. In short, he is one of the stripe of dictators who regularly appear in destitute third-world hell holes.

It's entirely possible that Ellellou believes the tropes of his Muslim/Marxist mashup philosophy, but if so, only briefly and superficially. He occasionally makes noises about leading his people to spiritual well-being and economic independence. But even he has to face the fact that his people can't see past their noses to anything larger and that without the aid of the outside world they would be living in caves. He cannot stop his constituents from trading in slaves, nor prevent them from partnering with the hated U.S. for oil riches -- at least not without slaughtering them.

This foreign setting stems from Updike's travels in Africa as a visiting scholar. But he's still Updike, so the best portions of the book happen back in the U.S. or in the descriptions Ellelou's marital interactions.

through flashbacks we see that Ellellou was an abandoned child in French colonial territory. He grew up to participate in some of the mid-century conflicts of the French Indochina (on the French side) then somehow found himself as a college student at a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin. Here he experiences, if not outright racism, than racialization of society. A white woman gets involved with him, mostly out of a desire to be rebellious than anything else. He falls in with a bunch of Nation of Islam types. The entire litany of racial hypocrisy is on display for him. He ends up with a low-level anti-white sentiment, but again, one senses it is not out of passionate belief, but out of utility, even acknowledging that a belief system is only as good as it's consequences. Entitled hypocrisy or the middle class -- despite the exotic setting we are now on Updike's home turf.

But mostly, Ellellou is overwhelmed and confused by America. There is too much too take in, too many products, too many complications, too many ideas, too much stimulation. He yearns for clarity and simplicity and in doing so comes to see his empty, destitute homeland as a paradise and America as a destroyer.

Back in his homeland, he deposes and eventually beheads the king (a former mentor), pulls some stunts that make him look magical to his backwards constituents, and intimidates or kills anyone else who gets in his way, yet he still can't see the way to glory. His has a interior minister, who is clearly smarter and more practical than he, just primed to pull a coup of his own. More prominently, he has to deal with his allotment of four wives. Here again, Updike steps back into a realm he knows well -- marital dynamics. In the face of his theoretically absolute political and social power, his wives retain personal power. He still longs for their approval and spousal respect. In varying ways he gets this, despite the fact that a couple of them have borne numerous children in the face of his impotence. The push and pull of husband and wives is not all that different from that in the New England suburbs of Updike's usual setting.

In the end, everyone, including the country, gets a change of position or scenery, but it's unlikely anyone was shaken from their belief in themselves or altered their values. Ellellou find a brief moment of happiness as the thing he hates: a prole, employed thanks to American industry. But even in the face of this, it is not clear he gets what he has become.

Long time readers of my reviews know that I value conciseness very highly. I am, generally, of the opinion that in fiction, any words that serve no purpose should not be written. If a sentence does not move the plot forward, add needed characterization, or make the reader laugh, it should be removed. Updike, in contrast, has no compunction against hanging out for a paragraph describing the the tactile sensations of a patch of sand. In fact, this was probably the major criticism of Updike over the years, that he was more shallow than his thesaurus led us to believe.

I disagree heartily with that. He is not shallow. And in the hands of most writers, a prediction for detailed scene setting would be death to a manuscript. But there is another, less understood reason to keep words in a story: beauty. A sentence that is completely useless otherwise can be permitted provided it is of exceptional beauty, in which case it is its own justification. Updike is such a consummate craftsman with such a strong poetic sense, that his flights of wordiness are still worthwhile. Usually. Even Updike could have stood to hack 20% out of The Coup.

Should you read The Coup. Yes. It's a safe bet you be impressed. If I have left the impression that this is a political book, let me correct that: it is not. Politics, in a completely cliched way, plays a role, but this is a book about acute observations of deluded individuals (of the sort we all are, really). So please do let fear of partisan offense stop you. (Although I would note that Updike was an Obama supporter and he suggested Obama would benefit from reading The Coup. Use that info bite however you will.) Nor is it particularly dire, despite the subject matter -- some have even read it as primarily a comedy. Beyond as a satire, it's tough to pigeonhole, but The Coup is certainly one of the best books I've read in a long, long time.

[Travel] Oh See OC

Oh See OC: Again I hit Orange County. This time it was Miss Kate's 50th birthday and rented house in Laguna Beach.

Once again we made a run down to San Diego -- this time La Jolla. I love La Jolla. Walking along the shoreline. The Cove. The view. The sea lions. Tasty food everywhere. There are few better places in the world to spend a leisurely afternoon. This afternoon, however, was actually chilly. Or at least chilly for Southern California. We had given passing thought to renting kayaks for some exploration of the bay, and we could have had we been prepared for the chill and drizzle, but lack of rain and wind gear would have made it a bit of a grind. So we settled for trolling the shops and having a fine waterside lunch.

The next day was a Michigan football game so we had a mad scramble to find a sports bar that featured the game. We found one -- a fairly sophisticated one, Player's Sports Grill -- wedged into the corner of a strip mall. It had about a hundred and thirty TVs covering every square inch of wall space and each table was given it's own personal speaker. A serendipitous place to find when you want to watch a game that only of interest to people from the other side of the country. Outstanding game -- last minute victory.

This was followed by another mad scramble to get some warm and dry gear, because we had planned a sunset sailboat cruise in Newport Beach. Of course, in the overcast weather, "sunset" required quite an imagination. Still, Newport Beach harbor is lovely and over-the-top wealthy. We zipped in and around multi-million dollar homes and enormous yachts -- also some semi-abandoned floating pieces of junk. It seems that in Newport Beach harbor once you have possession of one of the mooring buoys you own it for good. With dock space all locked up tight, just having a piece of crap rowboat that's about to sink tied up to a buoy to reserve it is probably good for a hundred grand or so of net worth. So rusted and corroded half floating pieces of crap populate a fair number of them, just so the owner can hold on to them for investment purposes. Sea lions tend to occupy the truly abandoned ones, which surprisingly don't sink under their weight.

Despite the nasty weather, it was nice to be out on the water and sailing, even if we only got out in the Pacific for a few minutes before darkness drove us back into the harbor where we voyeuristically gazed into the sparkling homes and restaurants and the skipper regaled us with stories of the madness of the rich folk.

And that was it for everyone else. The next morning they were all off to the airport for their flights home. I, cleverly, booked myself one more day which I spent, at the suggestion of Miss Anna, in San Clemente.

As sweet a SoCal beach town as you will find. San Clemente doesn't really have the high-end vibe of a Newport Beach or La Jolla and it lacks the crowded intensity of Laguna Beach or Dana Point. It's just a sparklingly lovely little place with the nicest beach I've yet experienced is So Cal. the only one that approaches the beauty and accessibility of a Florida beach. In fact, the place reminds me of one of my favorite spots in Florida, Delray Beach. It has a long main street of little shops and cafes, then a short walk through a residences -- mostly mid-mod with some med-style -- and down towards the end is the beach. And in San Clemente you get a long pier stretching into the Pacific with a buzzing clapboard fish and beer house at it's base that undoubtedly fills up with people at sunset. I settled into a bar across the street from the beach for a light lunch of fish tacos, bloody marys, and football. I could have happily chilled out there all afternoon.

I suspect it will be awhile until I get back to SoCal. (Unless Michigan gets in the Rose Bowl.) Next year probably -- hopefully during better weather. I'm going to be angling for San Clemente as a base of operations.

[Football] Pigskin Potluck

Pigskin Potluck: NFL season is half over, and it's been a strange and fascinating season. I almost wish I had my football column back. Almost.
  • It started with Bountygate, and has anything ever had it's moral righteousness turned inside out so fast? At the start it was all the rage to demand action -- who were these savages trying to injure their fellow players? Roger Goodell put his hand over his heart and laid down the law; he could do no less what with the concussion problem getting so much press and all. Then the Saints, everybody's beloved puppy of a team, started to lose. Then everyone stopped to think about it. Then everyone read the details. Then the lawsuits came. A couple months later and Goodell is running for cover and suspended players are beating the rap. I realize there may have been some wrong-doing here, but I just love it when the sanctimonious get their comeuppance.
  • Then we had replacement refs, who are now largely forgotten. For me this was a dose of self-awareness. I know I am an instinctive contrarian, but I never realized how severe this affliction was until I found myself thinking that even though everyone was up in arms over these guys, there really was no hard evidence that we're doing significantly worse than the pros. There are bad calls made in every game, often they are overlooked or excused away. I seriously suspected that the replacements weren't doing any worse, at least not relative to expectations given their experience level, they were just getting hammered because of perceptions and fashion. I honestly still don't know that that wasn't the case. But in the course of this I discovered one secret to lifelong happiness: Always agree with the majority and delude yourself that you have done so out of reasoned analysis. You will find the world is made for you.
  • I can't remember the last time I saw an NFL game in person, but I have been to two Michigan games this year. Having given some thought to the differences between college and pro I have come to wonder whether the differences between the games are greater than generally perceived and whether that explains why it is so difficult to draft effectively over a long period of time. It has to do with the great(er) variation in athletic ability in college. This is most blatantly on display at QB where a very athletic QB will always have someone he can outrun in college. The offense only needs to design a play such that the poorer athlete ends up responsible for stopping the speedy QB and points and trophies and Heismans are in the offing. At the pro level, every player on the defense is a better athlete than anyone the QB has ever faced before. The QB may get away with depending on his athleticism for a while -- maybe even a full season -- but the defenses around the league will figure you out and you will fall flat. This is also true to a lesser extent in receivers and defensive backs. In college you can get away with just being a better athlete. Chances are your team has a receiver who will simply be outright faster than the guy covering him. Easy target. Once you get to the NFL you will no longer be fast enough to outrun the skilled and disciplined defenders, your success will depend on hitting your routes, adjusting on broken plays, and even blocking. It's entirely possible that players who don't get the big national headlines or even regular starts during their college career turn out to be the ones who are better at adapting, finding roles, and playing with their heads instead of their feet. This explains why the big NFL stars are often guys you never heard of in college. Denard Robinson (Michigan's speedy QB) is a blast to watch, but no one has deluded themselves that he is going on to much success in the NFL except as a role player. And as much fun as I have at the Michigan games, I still prefer the higher play quality of the NFL.
  • Speaking of quality: Peyton Manning. He gets a knock or two for having only one ring but that's about the only knock I can think of. In fact, having that ring could be quite an argument in his favor. The one season the Colts managed to have a defense that wasn't below average he got them all rings. He was out all last year with an injury and looking at the Colts record you can get a sense for how much of their success was because of him. Now after a year off, four neck surgeries, and on a unfamiliar team, he looks like he's still elite.
    "Receiver Demaryius Thomas [says] that Manning recently installed a play during practice that included a fade-out route cornerback Champ Bailey described as "unstoppable." Manning installed another play that the Saints couldn't handle - during last night's game. And so the point is that Peyton isn't playing at this level because he has the arm strength of his younger days, but because he still has enough in his body and he has more than ever in his mind."
    I maintain he is the best QB ever and probably the best football player ever. And that's not me being a contrarian.
  • Since this post is getting to be as long as my old columns, let me finish up by pointing you to my current favorite football writer, Mike Tanier, at Sports on Earth, formerly of my longtime favorite stats site Football Outsiders. He writes smart, literate and lively columns -- never descending into snarky juvenilia as is the fashion in sports writing on the web. In fact, I worry that he may have a little too high an opinion of his readers. For example, this quote from a column a couple of weeks back:
    "As usual, Julian Assange couldn't get accurate injury information out of the Patriots if you gave him a keycard, Bill Belichick's computer password and a stethoscope. [Receiver Brandon] Lloyd went down hard on his shoulder at the end of the Seahawks game Sunday and appeared to be very injured, but ask Belichick and he will just tell you that Yuri Andropov has a cold."
    It's marginally reasonable to expect Joe Football Fan would know who Julian Assange is. But Yuri Andropov? That's quite a reach. Great line though. Kudos to his editors for letting him go for it. I'm rooting for a followup reference to Konstantin Chernenko.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The Month That Was - September 2012

The Month That Was - September 2012: Good-bye dear summer. One of the things I feel good about is that the past few years I have made the most of my summers. Lots of outside activity. This summer was no different. I got my distance running to a new level, knocking off a couple of half marathons. I wasn't able to extend a my distance in biking, still at somewhere around 40-50 miles, but my speed over short distances went up. My swimming stagnated, alas.

The counterpoint to all this recreation was that I became fairly adept at digging holes and planting things. And my lawn mowing times dropped.

Lately, and finally, it's been back to writing. Working through a (possibly final) revision of my latest (rather short) project and I am slowly building a working set of notes for my subsequent project. I find that no matter how much I try, I have to write long hand. On big yellow legal pads. Original composition, and even editing, on my laptop just doesn't work for me. The computer just records what I have already done on paper. Probably inefficient as hell, but it's what I've got. It's more inefficient to keep trying, and failing, to adjust my habits. "Old dogs...", and so forth.

No book review this month. I read a few short stories, none of which were all that impressive, but I have since started The Coup, by John Updike. It is astounding. More when I finish.

Oh, and on the 13th I completed my 52nd lap around the sun. My lap times are not getting any shorter but they sure seem like it.

[Travel] Back to the Island
[TV] Toob Notes: Winding Down the Golden Age
[Movies] Flick Check: The Avengers
[Good Links] Links: Cheap and Heavy

[Travel] Back to the Island

Back to the Island: My third straight year hitting Mackinac Island for the 8 Miler. It's a run around the circumference of the island, a very flat paved road with no traffic (except the occasional horse and buggy) and stunning views. In fact, it's hard for me to imagine a nicer run experience.

Very little ever changes on the Island. Oh the names of the storefronts change, but it's not like you get any new construction going on. You walk down the main street by the docks and, if you have been at visiting for fifteen years or so like I have, you could easily forget which year it is. Oh this fudge shop may have turned into that restaurant, but the buildings are the same, and the lake and boats are the same, and the horse-led carriages are trolling back and forth like they have since time immemorial, and the fort's guns are fired at the same time, and the rock and trees and pathways are all exactly as you left them.

The run is on Saturday, so you head up to the island on Friday, take the ferry over and get settled into your hotel. In this case we found ourselves at Island House. Like most of the island's hotels, it is an older building with, oh, let's call it "vintage" room decor and the thin walls of a more reticent age, but it's postcard-lovely, as evidenced by the multiple weddings they had going on the property.

Friday evening you can carb load and relax. There are plenty of restaurants although you'll find just about everything is standard American fare. Goodfellows, though it looks like a sports bar from the outside, is a one of the better spots -- well prepared dishes towards the Italian side of things (did I mention carb loading?). You'll find a bit more creative fare at Mary's Bistro. In both cases sit on the porch if it's nice.

The next day you're up and running. It's a late start,10 am, so no need drag yourself out of bed before dawn to get to the start. It is usually perfect running weather (although this year there was a tiny spot of rain); just the slightest hint of fall in the air, but not cool enough you need an extra layer. Great views of the lakeshore and Mackinac Bridge. You have finished the race, picked up your finishers medal, ate a banana, showered and are ready for fun by lunchtime.

Late lunch and beers -- feel free to indulge: you're staying another night, couldn't be driving even if you wanted two, and are never more than a half mile walk from your bed. Not only that, even if you dropped unconscious in the street at 3AM you'd probably wake up with your wallet intact when you got prodded awake by a horse dung shoveler in the morning.

We didn't get into that situation, but we did while away the afternoon on the proch at the Pink Pony -- watching the Michigan game and jabber-jawing with other patrons, the bartenders, etc. It turns out the Pink Pony has a resident mink (I called it a ferret before I was corrected) that pokes it's head out now and then in search discarded delicacies. How a mink got on the island is a matter of some speculation. We stayed through dinner and then closed the evening in the bar back at Island House.

Next morning it was get up, pack, and buy some fudge for the poor unfortunates who could not join us. Did I mention how beautiful it was? Can't wait to get back there again next year. It's a perfect birthday gift to myself. If you've never been to Mackinac and northern Michigan, you really owe it to yourself. I can think of a better summer destination.

[TV] Toob Notes: Winding Down the Golden Age

Toob Notes: Winding Down The Golden Age: So Boardwalk Empire and Dexter have begun, and Homeland also I suppose, but I don't watch that. Absolutely top notch shows all of them, but my enthusiasm is tempered by the knowledge that nothing currently in the works is going to approach the TV pantheon. I have in fact revised the pantheon, based the being able to judge the bulk of the two great AMC dramas, Mad Men and Breaking Bad and I've made some changes.

In first place remains Deadwood, David Milch's masterpiece. The dialogue is unmatched and not just on television. You'd probably have to go to the stage to find any other drama wherein the dialogue was used for poetic purposes, not just as a utilitarian way to illustrate characters or move the plot forward. Characters spoke in complete sentences and paragraphs, and even had soliloquies. Every third word was profane and yet it made such beautiful music.

The concept itself: "How does barbarism become civilization and at what cost?" was more ambitious than anything I have ever seen in drama. It was unflinching in examining this -- unjust deaths, horrible people -- both damaged and damaging, and yet progress was made somehow. Like all of Milch's HBO work, it had to be left unfinished, but what ending there was was perfect. The town progresses, becomes a safer better place for it's residents, but the cost was the murder of an innocent. No judgment was passed, you are left to figure out on your own whether the end justified the means. Besides it's philosophical and poetic audacity it has something else that very few other serious dramas can claim. It is optimistic. Whatever ugliness and horrors occur, the bottom line is that things get better, both the world and the people in it. That cannot be said for any of the other shows on this list.

Number two is The Sopranos, a brilliant riff on the costs and benefits of self-delusion. It was just astounding on the subtleties on interpersonal power dynamics in the workplace (The Mob) and at home. Everyone was a victim, yet nobody was innocent. You sympathized with killers, then were shamed for it -- calling into question your own self-delusion. Death and destruction await pretty much all the characters, but you're still left with a nagging question, would they have been better off without their self-delusions. Or more philosophically, can you really not delude yourself, or do you just exchange one delusion for another?

Bonus points for the best sustained acting performance ever, by James Gandolfini, and quite probably the second best, by Edie Falco. Further bonus points for the very best depiction of the "The sins of the fathers..." ever. Extra credit for founding the Golden Age to begin with back in 1999. Slight deduction because there was a bit of fat in the middle seasons; it disappeared once the end was in sight.

Third place goes, conditionally, to Mad Men. Conditionally, because there is still one season left and if they make a hash of it, it drops. Up until this season I had always thought of Mad Men as a show that was "almost there", it just had this quality or that quality missing. But no, it's all there. Here's the interesting thing to me about Mad Men (which is a clue to it's quality): My take on much of the content is very different from most people. To wit:
  • Initially, many thought it to be a curious piece of demi-satire about the backwards troglodytes in the early sixties. Since I had memory of those times I didn't see it so. To me it seemed a sharp piece of history wherein things were different, and while I would agree that things are better now, there was a sense of how much has been lost in terms of simple freedom of action and basic manners.
  • Later, Don chose to marry a young cookie over a mature career woman and the public howled over his caveman sexism and how he was doomed to be unfulfilled by his child bride. To me that presupposed that the highest and best achievement of a man is to have a dedicated partnership with a woman built on the intellectual respectfulness and quite probably regular couples therapy sessions to raise awareness of each other. Don chose warmth, motherliness, virility, conflict, and emotional connection over clinical self-actualization. Yeah, I was on Don's side.
  • In the season that just ended, the general consensus has been that since Joan bravely defied her husband who had the audacity to feel duty bound to the serve in Vietnam and underwent the ultimate degradation for a partnership in SCDP; that she has courageously turned her sex-centered victimhood on its head. Me? Well it looks to me like she married the poor schlub because she was afraid of spinsterhood, when he joined the military to support her she promptly went and had slept with Roger and got pregnant and passed the baby off to her husband as his own, then kicked him to the curb without ever telling him the truth, meanwhile taking a turn as a prostitute to get ahead. She's a horrible person, just horrible.
Now I readily grant my congential contrariness and acknowledge that my opinions are in the minority (perhaps a minority of one). Furthermore, based on interviews I've read, I suspect that (showrunner) Matt Weiner has sentiments in line with the majority, not me -- but notice how that doesn't come through in the show. These things are left open ended. He shows you what happened, you decide what to think. That is incredibly harder to do that it sounds, but it's like that from start to finish. In the now classic final sequence from last season, we see Peggy, out on her own, away from the shackles of Don and SCDP. She's on a sales trip, lying in bed in a cheap motel and feeling like she's come a long way baby, then she looks out the window to a view of dogs humping in an alley. Is she better off or worse? Weiner isn't going to tell you what to think.

Bonus points to Mad Men for the near complete lack of violence or bombast. Also no lurid sex (which the HBO shows keep in their pocket for an cheap thrill). It is the only show in this list that relies on "normal" people, the sort of folks you see everywhere all the time, to generate interest. That's taking the hard path.

The Wire moves down to fourth and I don't feel completely confident in that ranking. The Wire's central conceit is brilliant on par with Deadwood. That is: Modern Institutions are really modern version of Greek Gods: they are arbitrary and vengeful; they cannot be resisted and control our fate at their whim. For high concept this is on a par with Deadwood. But the execution was less even and perhaps a bit too reliant on mythology of the characters rather than the humanistic insights of the narrative. To best illustrate this contrast consider season four, featuring the journey of four teenage boys through one summer in the Baltimore ghetto, compared to the final season. Season four was a brilliantly told story with the most palpable sense of fate and helplessness this side of Oedipus the King. They four boys were made or broken based on how they happened to interact with the structures of society around them. But at the end, in that final season, the writers, and David Simon in particular, took the opportunity to tell you what to think rather than capture the shades of gray, and we got snark and pot shots. Sorry, but consistency counts and it's a big minus for The Wire.

Likewise number five, Breaking Bad, started out with a sharp identity. Not as high concept as the others, it simply asked is it better to be a good and a doormat, or evil and respected? Walt started out a milquetoast. His son idolized his tough guy cop brother-in-law while never seeming to give him a second thought. His wife was a relentless, contemptuous nag. He barely provided for his family and was facing going begging to a patently more successful former rival to cover the costs of his cancer treatment. Facing death and eternal insignificance, was it really a bad decision to take the path he took? Through intellect, guile, and ruthlessness he became fearsome -- an alpha male who secured wealth for his family and respect for himself. His son came to idolize him and his wife to fear him. Most people, as usual, took another angle, seeing him as a man who had morally fallen from the grace of happy citizenship and turned evil. Fair enough, and through four seasons it could have been taken either way. But the current season (on hiatus after the first half as I write this) has the answer. Walt pushes too far and for that he must pay -- there is no grey anymore, there is no doubt -- his hubris will his unmaking. Walt is evil and must be punished. While it has be absolutely killer television -- the train robbery episode was utterly riveting -- the dramatic depth is gone. It's now just a matter of waiting to see how he gets his just desserts. I suppose having a pat moral to the story helps with closure. But I miss the messy humanity of conflict. (I'm speculating here, since the final 8 episodes aren't coming for a few months. It is possible it won't work out as I have described it.)

The real sadness: HBO greatness is gone and the last seasons of those AMC shows are coming with a year and then that's all she wrote. Nothing currently running or in planning has much hope of breaking the Drama Pantheon. Perhaps there will come a time in the future where a new wave of quality TV will wash over us. I hope I live to see it.

Writing this made me think I should do something similar for sitcoms. Seinfeld would probably be first. Cheers second. After that things get tricky. Sitcoms are so uneven over their lives. Almost all of the best of them start out slow, flat-out nail a season or two then slow fade into oblivion. (The Office, The Simpsons, Rosanne, Taxi, Cosby, South Park, Family Guymaybe even Big Bang Theory fall into this category). Most comedies thrive long term by being populated with characters you want to hang with for a half hour or so. The funniest current sitcom I know of is Archer but that begs the question of how to rank animated shows.

Also, I must admit, I'm not up on the latest sitcoms. I watch Archer and Wilfred. Louie is very well done, but to call it a comedy is a stretch (maybe dark comedy), and frankly it leaves me a bit cold despite its obvious quality. I catch occasional episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia which can still kick out a knee-slapper ever ten or so tries. But the highly spoken of Parks and Recreation, Community, and Modern Family, I have never seen. And the bits and pieces of 30 Rock that I have seen indicate that it might be flat out bad. Nope, not qualified to write a pantheon of sitcoms.

This might be the longest post I have ever written. Enough of me. Here: read this oral history of Cheers. Key quote: "Kurt Vonnegut (from a 1991 interview):I would rather have written Cheers than anything I've written."

[Movies] Flick Check: The Avengers

Flick Check: The Avengers: I may the last person to review The Avengers as if it were a new film, but I just saw it. And it was really, really good. It was fascinating to me to see this come to life, since I remember all of it from my youth collecting Marvel comics. The plot itself was standard comic book fare -- I'm pretty sure the plot wasn't exactly the comic book origin plot which did have Loki but not Nick Fury, IIRC. Anyway, it doesn't matter because the plot was good enough and relatively unobtrusive.

There are a number of reasons the movie turned out to be such a good actioner and they are all Joss Whedon. He's an old hand at comic books and understands the very basic attraction of superhero stories. He knows a thing or two about pacing and action film. And he brings the same hyper-ironic wit that he brought to Buffy all those years ago -- the kind of wit that was a key attraction of Marvel comics back in the 70s, when the world was deadly earnest about everything.

Excellent work, and as high an example of craftsmanship as any festival-award-winning, deeply meaningful, hipster favorite film. I expect this is the sort of film I'll land on and stop while channel surfing for years to come.

[Good Links] Links: Cheap and Heavy

Links: Cheap and Heavy: The usual compilation of the serious and the silly.

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Month That Was - August 2012

The Month That Was - August 2012: A handful of fallen leaves, a after-work bike ride in twilight -- we are officially into the tail end of summer. I'll get maybe two more lake swims in, three if I'm lucky. The upside is that I only have two or three more lawn cutting expeditions, too.

Just as with last summer the house dominated my concerns. I'm dropping some serious change to re-asphalt the driveway. I've also been pouring money into flowers and plants weekly. I got part of my kitchen repainted and a counter extension put on to the kitchen peninsula. Got a number of wall hangings up including some seriously sweet canvas rendering of a set of 4 of my photos from Antelope Canyon.

Still much more to do. And I have big plans for an addition and a patio/deck enhancement out back, but the next big project is going to be getting the old condo in shape to sell; that's going to finance the big plans. I'm seriously tempted to list it For Sale by Owner, partially just out of curiosity as to whether I could do it successfully and save a few thousand in commissions. But it wouldn't be the first time my big ambitious plans went south on me and I ended up cursing myself.

At some point I will write again. I'm sure of it.

[Travel] Back to the O.C.
[Books] Book Look: The Thief
[Rant] The Trouble With Lance
[Detroit] Dissin' The D
[Good Links] Trip the Link Fantastic

[Travel] Back to the O.C.

Back to The O.C.: Now that Miss Anna is out in Southern Cal it seems I will be traveling there habitually for a while at least. Slowly, I'm learning my way around. Traffic is as bad as it is thought to be, but in some circumstances you can get around it if you are willing to pony up some scratch. There is a stretch of toll road that will get you from OC airport to points south, with very little traffic even on a weekday rush hour -- but you're going to be dropping round about $6 per trip to use it. It'll reduce a hour long stop and go to about 25 minutes, so it's probably worth it. What's not worth it are the carpool lanes. Although we had access due to multiple riders, I never noticed them moving any faster than the other lanes. And you are limited to certain points where you can get in them and out of them.

So here we see the first effect of spending time in So Cal. Traffic becomes a significant concern at all times. There are few things more relative than traffic attitudes. Here in Dexter they were repaving a bridge that caused it to be taken down to one lane, for a couple of months. We had the option of driving 5 minutes out of our way or waiting 5 minutes to take turns crossing. This was an outrageous disruption. In So Cal waiting 5 minutes in line to pay and extra six dollars to take a toll road is considered a privilege.

Besides the fact that So Cal remains a beautiful place, there's not much to report on. The primary goal of this trip was to get Anna settled into a new apartment (a very cool place). Lots of moving and cleaning. I installed a ceiling fan for the first time in my life - OK, it wasn't on my bucket list, but still a minor achievement. Also, I managed to destroy only one picture frame in the course of getting wall hangings up, which I consider a personal victory.

We bedded down at the lovely Dana Point at the Laguna Cliffs Marriott. A lovely place elevated above the shore where we have stayed before. It's a quality hotel through and through, but not without its quirks. They tend to get themselves overcrowded, especially on the weekends. There is only valet parking, meaning you pretty much have to tack an extra $20-25/night on the expected cost. Those two bummers combine such that Sunday morning, the big checkout time, we called down to have our car brought around and they said they were not taking calls for cars, we had to show up in person because they were so busy they had no room to leave cars sitting in the driveway waiting. So we showed up in person and were quoted a half hour wait. Whatever system they have going on here needs attention.

The other issue is one that afflicts many many restaurants and lounges: the inexplicable need to plant a ridiculously loud band in the middle of the room such that conversation consists of shouting at each other. It's really remarkable that a place like the Laguna Cliffs Marriott, with a beautiful open air restaurant that would be an amazing place to just curl up and cocktail the night away with friends, feels the need to try to make itself into a third rate nightclub. As I said, this is not a rare occurrence which is all the more annoying because it is possible to have live music without turning the place into a half-assed roadhouse. One night we ate and a surprisingly good Italian restaurant called Roma D'Italia in a shopping center near Anna's place and they had a live jazz duo that was quite good and entertaining yet somehow managed to play at a volume that permitted conversation using inside voices.

In any event, we did have one free day that Miss Kate and I used to go down to San Diego to do a bit of biking. We got down to Pacific Beach and rented a couple of bikes with the intent of riding to Mission Bay Park, but apparently you couldn't get there from where we were. We headed off in the right direction but next thing I knew we were trying to negotiate what seemed to be a freeway cloverleaf with cars whipping past us at 60 mph. It's not like there were signs, and sadly the map app on my phone did not indicate where the bike paths were. We headed in what looked like the safest direction and eventually came to nice stretch of path that took us to a beach, but it was a dog beach, and smelled like one. After backtracking a bit and maneuvering through another insane intersection we finally made it to Mission Bay Park but with only a few minutes to ride around before we had to turn back. On the way back we took a long shortcut through the parking lot at Sea World before making another wrong turn and surmounting two steep bridges that we didn't really need to surmount and so had to unsurmount them in the opposite direction before finally stumbling back to the bike shop. I know San Diego to be a strikingly beautiful city from previous trips, but you would not have guessed it from our ride. At least we could console ourselves that we got some exercise.

Anna's response to hearing of our cycling misadventures: "I hope you guys are finally over being active." Fair enough. Next time we'll spend the afternoon shopping and eating in La Jolla.

It was, for me, a day of losses. Not only did I get us lost on the bikes. But I managed to lose my American Express card at a restaurant and the book I was reading on the plane home. Double bonus: it was a library book, so I get to go hang my head in shame and be scolded by a librarian. This is bad for me because I am borderline sociopathic about keeping myself aware and on alert when travelling. As a result, that kind of thing really rattles and frustrates me.

Not every trip can be a joyful experience start to finish. Luckily, an al fresco glass of wine in the California coastal night air, is enough to make it a good trip. Seeing my beloved friends makes it worthwhile above all else.

[Books] Book Look: The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura

Book Look: The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura: I have clearly developed a habit of reading Asian crime fiction. The past couple of months it has been Qiu Xiaolong's Shanghai based police procedurals. That got sidetracked when I left the one I was reading on a plane, so this month we move to Japan.

I don't remember how I stumbled on The Thief. My usual M.O. when trolling around the web is to add a book/CD/product to my Amazon Wish List if I want to keep it in mind for the future. That suggests The Thief had popped up as recommended on some site I frequent. Unfortunately, by the time I get to reading them, I can't remember where these books are coming from and now I'm curious to know who recommended it.

The Thief is not a police procedural -- there are no police to be seen. What it is, is straightforward noir. A loner criminal tries to live by a code of honor. Our protagonist is a pickpocket by trade, although he has a minor in general thievery such as shoplifting and has at least one major heist involving guns and violence on his resume. These days he tries to keep to his place. He only picks the pockets of "The Rich" who he identifies by their clothes, mostly. Once in possession of their wallets he takes the cash but drop the wallet and any other contents into a mailbox thus returning the rest to rightful owner while also insulating himself from any potential link to victim. He also feels compelled to bring white-knight assistance to a young boy, whose desperate, degenerate mother is using him to shoplift for her. This later comes back to bite him when a big bad gangster from his past needs him to do one more job.

Boilerplate stuff, really, as far as plot and character go. Fuminori-san does a excellent job with atmosphere, however. The seedy, depressive darkness of Noir is rendered as well as I have ever read. Should you read The Thief. I wouldn't make a point of it. It has good qualities, it is brief, and has moments of cleverness, especially in the resolution of the final test the gangster places on our protagonist. But I doubt you'll find emotional investment, and the hints at deeper issues of fate and control don't seem developed enough to grab your attention. Still, it's a good time passer. It's a good travel book (a book to have with you when you are travelling). I guarantee no harm will come to you from reading it if my description intrigues you.

[Rant] The Trouble With Lance

The Trouble With Lance: Good, upper-middle-class progressives everywhere were devastated when Lance Armstrong got slapped with a doping charge. They value their fitness and disease charity work as major self-definers and Lance is the guy who has bravely taken both activities to the limit. He is a driven, clean cut, well-spoken guy with all the right credentials to be an icon for suburbanites looking to have it all and be appropriately socially conscious while doing so. Plus, he has an awesome brand name. It's unthinkable that there should be a cloud over him. What will we do with all these yellow wristbands?

What we know (sort of): He had a suspicious positive test back in 1999 but nothing came of it upon retest. The same sort of thing seemed to happen in 2001. Tests from '09 and '10, according to the USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency), are indicative of "manipulation of his blood", although those tests are not completely reliable and who knows what counts as "blood manipulation". The evidence is suggestive but tenuous, especially when you consider that throughout his career other riders had been getting caught all around him. If he's such a big juicer, why'd it take so long? The guy has retired, un-retired and re-retired -- now suddenly we're worried about 1999?

What we do have now is about 10 other riders, including former teammates, who ratted him out as part of a plea deals. Former teammate Tyler Hamilton is hawking a "tell-all" that is the 900 lb. gorilla in this room. And this is really the heart of Lance's problem. Whether they are being truthful or they are just grasping for mercy in their own interest, it's safe to say that they don't like Lance. In fact, it turns out very few people who know Lance, like Lance. He is surly. He has a history of bullying anyone he perceives as doing anything that might interfere with his legend. (Here's the latest sample of that.)

Not that there is anything wrong with that. Well, there is of course, but we all have personal shortcomings. It doesn't change the good his charity work has done. And it doesn't make him any less of a cycling phenomena. Even if he was juiced he won the TdF all those times over other cyclists who were juiced. So in relative terms, there is no questioning his athletic bona-fides. Note that the folks who would be in line to assume Lance's vacated titles are, to a man, convicted or accused juicers themselves. Frankly, considering the number of riders that are doped, pro cycling should probably just roll with it and make it legal.

Lance says he's quitting the fight because he doesn't believe he can win; in other words the USADA is on a witch hunt. He is either being truthful about his motives or he is getting out of the fight with some plausible deniability before it turns against him. I suspect the latter because he doesn't seem to me like someone who would ever back off. On the other hand, it is entirely possibly that any further publicity, even in his favor would be a negative for his life and earning power and charity work and since he's already retired it might make sense for him to just back out.

And what of the motives of the witnesses? Plea deals are always suspect. Are they being honest, or are they angling for a break or just a chance to punch back at a bully? There is certainly a whiff of comeuppence wafting through the proceedings.

Unless some new facts appears, all we'll have to guide us is our best guesses about the motives of those involved. In other words all we'll have to guide us is our own biases.

Dismantling illusions to reveal the truth is a noble endeavour, but if you never find the truth all you're left with is the hole the illusion filled. In this case the illusion did an awful lot of good -- the truth just resolves a bicycle race. I don't see any winners.

[Detroit] Dissin' The D

Dissin' The D: It's been awhile since I pimp-slapped Detroit so lets have special link set just for that purpose.
  • The Detroit Water and Sewage Department employs a farrier (a horse-shoer) despite the fact that they do not have any horses. They are apparently not allowed to fire him thanks to the union collective bargaining agreement. "The city pays $29,245 in salary and about $27,000 in benefits for the horseshoer position."
  • Jet's Pizza is no longer delivering to Detroit after dark after a driver was shot. They previously used to send two people on every delivery, one armed. Now they are not even going to take the risk. Snarky as I sound about this stuff, please remember this when you read those feel good stories about renewal and revival. Facts on the ground are quite different. A very telling article.
  • The Detroit Institute of Arts was broke and on the verge of dissolution, Presumably because places that are too dangerous for pizza delivery are not generally populated with partons of the arts. But, they actually did a delightfully creative job of financing themselves and seem to have turned things around, at least temporarily. Three cheers -- or maybe just two. Did they consider going to their market instead of trying to bribe their market to come into Detroit? Why not relocate to Troy or Ann Arbor? You can't tell me that wouldn't have been a better long term solution.
  • Acid-fingered Drew Magary (he has to teflon coat his keyboard to stop it from burning away) really lays into The Lions, beginning with a sound dissing of Michigan first (although he actually is referring to Detroit mostly, he just has no map sense). Magary's schtick is to profanely pulverize his targets and he is awfully good at it. "Every loyal Lions fan has had to flee the area to go live in a Florida shipping container. And NOW the Lions finally have the balls to be good? What a dick move. Seriously." Love it.

[Good Links] Trip the Link Fantastic

Trip the Link Fantastic: Our usual odds and ends.
  • This is the reason I never involve myself in what passes for political debate. The sad thing is, the people who are parodied by this will never see that it applies to them.
  • If it seems like Bill Murray is a perfect fit for all those Wes Anderson films, it's because he lives a very Wes Anderson-y real life.
  • I gave up playing table games in casinos, but maybe I should have held out for this. It seems at a baccarat table there was a deck shuffling snafu and deck after deck was coming through with the cards in the exact same order. Gamblers caught on and won huge, now the casino is suing them for their money back. Not sure why the gamblers should have to pay for the casino's screw up, but what's really amazing is that it took 41 consecutive winning hands for the dealer to catch on. I'm guessing that dealer is now bussing tables in the buffet.
  • U.S. gambling laws make no sense whatsoever. The most pernicious form of gambling, playing the numbers, is legally sanctioned pretty much coast to coast and you can play it in any convenience store. We call it the lottery. Casino gambling with slots and table games are popping up everywhere, but table games and slots are mathematically certain to have the gambler at a disadvantage. Poker has finally gained legitimacy which makes it the only widely accessible casino game where you can have an theoretical advantage if you are better than the other players. Looks like courts are finally acknowledging this so in abackwards way, things are aligning with reality. Now if we could only get them to realize sports gambling is, if anything, the most gambler friendly form of wagering maybe I could place my bets at Walgreen's.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

The Month That Was - July 2012

The Month That Was - July 2012: Hot. It's hot. I don't want to do anything, it's too hot. It's too expensive to be inside the house running the AC nonstop. Working outside is out of the question, and the grass is dead. I've been hanging out at work to leech company AC and at the gym, stretching my workouts into the evening. Damn it's hot. Too bloody hot.

Seriously, I'm just spending my days being a good boy: living quietly, minding my manners, eating my vegetables, saving money, tending my garden, reading, writing, and working hard. Hoping for karma in the bank and a break in the heat.

[Books] Book Look: Death of a Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer
[Health and Fitness] Fitness Follies
[Michigan] Glove Love
[Sports] Flat Tour

[Books] Book Look: Death of a Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer, by Qiu Xiaolong

Book Look: Death of Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer, by Qiu Xiaolong: The first two entries in a mystery series set in Shanghai, these are wonderfully evocative of China. Often, in reading reviews of mysteries, points are made about how the ancillary features -- a fantasy or historical setting -- are the real source of interest, beyond the mystery itself. Fair enough, but in most cases this feels very manufactured; as if the author sat down and said, "OK, I need a gimmick to differentiate my stories." In this series the atmosphere of Shanghai is deeply woven into the stories.

Chief Inspector Chen Cao is our hero. Chen is a well-regarded poet and a makes extra money by translating English mysteries. His main occupation, however, is leading a special investigative division of the Shanghai police force -- special in the sense that they are assigned highly important cases, usually because of politics. The politics here are the politics of Shanghai in the '90s. The institutional forces at play are confounding. There are the dwindling "old cadre" -- Communist party hangovers from the time of Mao, before Deng's modernization. They tend to take a hard line and often view Chen's literary sideline as gravely suspicious. They are however, fading fast. The current Party high cadre came to power under Deng and they are masters of the gray world where fidelity to communism and getting obscenely wealthy are compatible via semantics and sophistry. Hovering in the shadows is the Triad (organized crime) in various guises. High concepts aside, power is as power does. Chen, for his part, is not without political power, mostly due to an estranged lover with connections to the Party council.

Individuals themselves are equally complicated. Many are struggling with the loss of the certainty of communism. Their once safe jobs are gone or they find their pay so minimal in booming Shanghai that they can barely get by. This hits home especially hard with Detective Yu, Chen's right hand man. He, along with his wife and son, still lives in cramped house with his father. He has little prospects for anything better in his career, and his wife, who works as a bookkeeper for a local restaurant actually makes more money that he does. Even when on an investigation he takes the bus to get to crime scenes and to interview witnesses. He has to find a payphone to call in reports to Chen. Meanwhile, many of those with the right contacts have made forays into the business and become quite wealthy but despite lip service to free enterprise, they run the risk of powerful opinion turning on them at any moment.

Hovering in the background of nearly every character is the Cultural Revolution and the atrocities and hardships that were thrust upon them by Mao, leaving them with scars that drive them in ways they often don't understand themselves.

In the midst of all this, Chief Inspector Chen has to solve murders and at least attempt to bring justice into this world where various influential people with tangled webs of goals and agendas would like to see things otherwise resolved.

Should you read the Chief Inspector Chen series? Two books in, I would say yes, unless you are actively repelled by police procedurals. As I said, the mysteries themselves are passable, the side characters and circumstances can be superficially drawn (as in most mysteries) but the world of Chief Inspector Chen is the pearl in this oyster. I'll follow up with a full report once I've completed the series. Which I intend to do.

[Health and Fitness] Fitness Follies

Fitness Follies: The heat really put a damper on things. Usually during the hot months I switch from running to cycling because it's much cooler, mostly because you are going fast enough to have a constant breeze in your face, but once you get into the triple digits, it's like a breeze from a blast furnace. Still, the cycling is going well. I was able to do the 40 mile Helluva Ride again this year -- always fun-- and I hope to get a 50+ miler in somewhere (or a half-century, if I want it to sound more impressive) before it gets too cold.

Swimming has slipped. It's just been difficult to get out to the lake with any regularity and with the heat, the crowds really put a damper on the swimming of buoy laps. It's no fun to accidentally deliver a forearm to some chubby dude wedged into a inner tube shaped like a duck, no matter how hard you try to smile.

I've also been keeping up with running to a certain extent. But more importantly in that department I was recommended to a place called The Running Institute, a physical therapy operation that focuses on runners. Since I was experiencing some brutal knee pain, I decided to let them put me through my paces.

All my life I have been told I am a supinator; I run on the outsides of my feet. I can stand on the little measuring device in the running store and it will show the weight distributed to the outside of my feet. Because of this I have always worn what are called "cushioned neutral" shoes. The idea behind these shoes is the added cushioning allows your foot to gently roll off the outside into proper neutral position -- it sort of passively guides your foot to roll inward to counterbalance your supination.

Now, at the Running Institute they don't play around with Mickey Mouse measuring devices or make guesses based on subjective impressions: they go right to the tape -- they video you and they look and the results with you. My videos caused people to go bug-eyed. Despite the fact that I load-bear on the outsides of my feet standing and walking, when I kick into a run, suddenly everything changes and I'm rolling to the inside of my foot (pronation). Honestly, looking at this video I was amazed my heel hadn't snapped in two at some point.

The upshot is that every shoe guy who has ever looked at me has recommended a shoe type that is the exact opposite of the one I needed; the one that encouraged my problem. But that was not obvious without the video.

From there the rest was easy. Go to the shoe shop next door (Running Fit). Pick out 5 pairs of shoes of the right type. Video me running on the treadmill in each pair. Pick the one that best straightens me out. For the record: Brooks Adrenaline GTS12.

I've only just started running in them but so far so good. We'll see if my knee pain subsides. For the revelation about my stride alone and comprehensive analysis, I would recommend The Running Institute, but most impressively you get a quick eval from a really high end running coach, Ron Warhurst, who's trained numerous internationally successful runners including the Beijing silver medalist in the 1500 and flag-bearer for New Zealand in London. He'll nail your worst inefficiencies in about 10 seconds.

A two session eval is not cheap, $175, but if you are at all serious about running, even recreational running, I highly recommend it. (Obviously this is for my Ann Arbor area homeys, but hey, if you want to make the trip...)

[Michigan] Glove Love

Glove Love: I'll be heading up to Mackinac next month, but others are commenting on Michigan summer travel already. Mario Batali, everybody's favorite fat Italian chef -- I could not count number of astounding meals I've had in his restaurants from Vegas to Manhattan -- declared Traverse City, Michigan to be his favorite summer destination for foodies. Familiarity might have something to do with that since he keeps a summer home up on the bay. (The original draft of this story referenced Batali's "ocean house." A poor commentary on the state of geographic education.)

Pure Michigan, the the State's travel PR organization, sponsored a north glove trip for, one of the travel sites I follow. It's actually a sister site to Hotel Chatter, where I used to contribute in their early pre-corporate years. They got to:
  1. Go to Mackinac Island
  2. Stay at the Grand Hotel
  3. Bike around the Island
  4. Visit a U.P. winery
  5. Go out on the water
  6. Smuggle pie past TSA
On behalf of all of us 'ganders, You're Welcome.

[Sports] Flat Tour

Flat Tour: I continue my tradition of being the only North American who follows the Tour de France, and this year it was rather a dull one. The winner was Bradley Wiggins and he had the race pretty much sewn up in the first few days. It was his unless he snapped a femur and couldn't continue. He was head and shoulders above anyone else on the time trials and he clearly had the best team around him, including the guy who finished second, so it really was no contest. Normally if the top two guys are on the same team, there is a controversy over who should be number one, but that never got off the ground because the number two guy immediately said "I'm the number 2 guy; I'm here to support the number 1 guy, and that's that," or words the that effect.

Last year's winner, Cadel Evans, was clearly not in condition to compete, to the point that another rider on his team taking over the top dog spot from him. A couple of other possible contenders were sidelined with injuries. Blah.

Oh, there were bits and pieces of excitement. There were massive crashes for about five days in a row. Some of these crashes are action-movie vicious. Imagine being hurled out a car moving at about 30 miles per hour protected by nothing but a helmet and a layer of spandex. More amazingly, during one stage, in a monumental act of asshattery, someone covered a stretch of the road with tacks and nails. But this only served to highlight something I love about the Tour -- the sportsmanship. The leader, Wiggins, managed to avoid any tack-induced flats, but the guy who was at that point still considered a main rival, Evans, suffered two blowouts (as did many others). Wiggins, upon hearing of this, intentionally slowed down (and the rest of the field slowed with him) until Evans changed tires and regained his ground. The overriding principle being that you should not lose the Tour because of mechanical problems. You should lose because the other guy raced better. This is really quite unique in sports, to my understanding. I guarantee you no NASCAR driver has ever slowed down because his rival had mechanical problems. In no running race has anyone ever held up because a rival's shoelace snapped. It's just the purest example of old school sportsmanship. It's the sort of behavior that is long gone from the wider world.

Of course, you can counter that with all the doping that goes on cycling may also be the dirtiest sport in the world. But viewed narrowly, it's pretty cool.