Monday, October 16th, 2017

[This is one of my favorite passages from Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi. In it, Twain describes one of the earliest days of his training to become a riverboat pilot at the hands of Horace Bixby, a crack pilot and Twain’s teacher:]

Now and then Mr. Bixby called my attention to certain things. Said he, ‘This is Six-Mile Point.’ I assented. It was pleasant enough information, but I could not see the bearing of it. I was not conscious that it was a matter of any interest to me. Another time he said, ‘This is Nine-Mile Point.’ Later he said, ‘This is Twelve-Mile Point.’ They were all about level with the water’s edge; they all looked about alike to me; they were monotonously unpicturesque. I hoped Mr. Bixby would change the subject. But no; he would crowd up around a point, hugging the shore with affection, and then say: ‘The slack water ends here, abreast this bunch of China-trees; now we cross over.’ So he crossed over. He gave me the wheel once or twice, but I had no luck. I either came near chipping off the edge of a sugar plantation, or I yawed too far from shore, and so dropped back into disgrace again and got abused.

Presently he turned on me and said: ‘What’s the name of the first point above New Orleans?’

I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.

‘Don’t know?

This manner jolted me. I was down at the foot again, in a moment. But I had to say just what I had said before.

‘Well, you’re a smart one,’ said Mr. Bixby. ‘What’s the name of the next point?’

Once more I didn’t know.

‘Well, this beats anything. Tell me the name of any point or place I told you.’

I studied a while and decided that I couldn’t.

‘Look here! What do you start out from, above Twelve-Mile Point, to cross over?’

‘I — I — don’t know.’

‘You — you — don’t know?’ mimicking my drawling manner of speech. ‘What do you know?’

‘I — I — nothing, for certain.’

‘By the great Caesar’s ghost, I believe you! You’re the stupidest dunderhead I ever saw or ever heard of, so help me Moses! The idea of you being a pilot — you! Why, you don’t know enough to pilot a cow down a lane.’

Oh, but his wrath was up! He was a nervous man, and he shuffled from one side of his wheel to the other as if the floor was hot. He would boil a while to himself, and then overflow and scald me again.

‘Look here! What do you suppose I told you the names of those points for?’

I tremblingly considered a moment, and then the devil of temptation provoked me to say: ‘Well—to—to—be entertaining, I thought.’

This was a red rag to the bull. He raged and stormed so (he was crossing the river at the time) that I judge it made him blind, because he ran over the steering-oar of a trading-scow. Of course the traders sent up a volley of red-hot profanity. Never was a man so grateful as Mr. Bixby was: because he was brim full, and here were subjects who would talk back. He threw open a window, thrust his head out, and such an irruption followed as I never had heard before. The fainter and farther away the scowmen’s curses drifted, the higher Mr. Bixby lifted his voice and the weightier his adjectives grew. When he closed the window he was empty. You could have drawn a seine through his system and not caught curses enough to disturb your mother with.

cub pilot | 5:00 am CDT
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Monday, April 10th, 2017

I read Ann Leckie’s debut novel “Ancillary Justice” about a year ago, which means I don’t remember how long ago it was. In the bible, they would’ve said “forty days and forty nights.” It was a long time ago. So long that I don’t remember all the details of the story now, but I do remember that I liked it and wanted to read more of Leckie’s work.

Luckily for me, “Ancillary Justice” is the first volume of a story Leckie eventually expanded into three volumes, the seemingly-standard trilogy of the fantasy and science fiction genre. She called the second volume “Ancillary Sword” and the third “Ancillary Mercy,” which is better than Roman numerals but still just confusing enough to my tiny little brain to make me stop and carefully look over all three volumes to make sure I was buying the right one. It doesn’t help that all three volumes have cover art that looks more or less the same: needle-nosed jet aircraft with razor-like wings painted in bright, primary colors.

After flipping through the first dozen pages or so and feeling certain that I knew which was the first and which was the second, I took my purchase to the check-out counter. It wasn’t until I was outside the store, headed back to the office, that I realized I’d put the wrong book back on the shelf and checked out with “Ancillary Justice,” the first book in the series, the one I’d already read. *facepalm* Too late at that point to turn around and ask them to swap it; I had just enough time to get back to my desk, no more.

I swung by the book store right after work, found the copy of “Ancillary Sword” that I meant to buy, tucked them both under my arm and headed for the checkout. Halfway there, I remembered the receipt that I’d tucked into the pages of “Ancillary Justice,” which I’d probably need to return the book, so I riffed through it, expecting the receipt to pop right out. It did not. Slowing my brisk walk to a slow amble, I started flipping through the pages a bit more slowly. Still couldn’t find it, so I flipped through it again, even more slowly this time. No joy.

By then, I was at the counter. “Hi,” I said to the young lady waiting there. “I bought this book —” holding up book “— earlier today, but I meant to buy this book —” holding up other book “— which is the second in a three-book series. I’d like to exchange one for the other, if that’s okay?” She said that would be no problem, so I began flipping through the pages again, explaining as I did that I was looking for the receipt. She waited patiently but, when I failed for the third time to find it, I asked her if we could just swap.

Apparently she couldn’t do that, not exactly, but she could process the first book as a return, give me store credit, and I could use the credit to buy the second one. Seemed needlessly complicated to me, but whatever. So she did all the hocus-pocus she had to do with the register, I signed a credit slip, she put the credit on a card, then charged the second book against the credit, and somehow I ended up with a couple bucks on the card. Don’t know how, but it was okay with me. I thanked her, scooped up the book, and headed out to the car.

Went to tuck the book into my backpack: It was “Ancillary Justice.”

Back into the book store. She looked at me sideways while she was finishing up with another customer. I smiled and waggled my fingers at her. When it was my turn, I flashed the cover of the book. She didn’t get it. Of course she didn’t. It looked just like the other book. “We got the books mixed up,” I explained, sliding it across the counter toward her. “I need the other one.” She gave it to me reluctantly, as if i was pulling a fast one on her. She didn’t seem entirely convinced I knew what I was talking about. But I finally got the right book. At least, I think I did.

Ancillary Mixup | 7:26 pm CDT
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Sunday, March 5th, 2017

If memory serves, I bought my first copy of The Caine Mutiny at a used book store in Lincoln, England, in 1999 or 2000. It was a pretty beat-up, water-damaged Penguin paperback edition and I read it as though I was possessed by it, all in one week. (400 pages in a week is pretty good for me.) Full disclosure: I didn’t read every word. The first time I read it I was put off by the love story, so I skipped over all that and only read the parts that had to do with MEN AT WAR, because that’s the kind of guy I was then. I’ve since read the novel from cover to cover many times and so far I appreciate it more every time (if I didn’t, I probably wouldn’t keep picking it up to re-read it).

Just in case you’re confused: The novel does, in fact, pivot around a mutiny aboard a naval vessel during the war in the Pacific, but the story is about the main character of the novel, who is not Humphrey Bogart, in spite of the movie you might have seen. (I kind of wish I’d never seen that movie. I still hear Bogart’s voice when I read the novel, and although Bogart did a fine job of playing Queeg, it’s the wrong voice for Queeg. John Fiedler’s voice would have been perfect; he may have been a better casting choice, too. But I digress.)

The book opens and closes on Willie Keith, who enters the story as a spoiled mama’s boy with little sense of direction but ends up as a confident, strong-willed young man who’s going places. The story is not told from Keith’s point of view, but he is present in almost every scene; events turn around him and their importance is impressed on him, building his character piece by piece. That I ever thought his story was boring enough to skip over should show you what I lack in the way of appreciation for good writing.

The Caine Mutiny is also amazing for being semi-autobiographical. Author Herman Wouk served as an officer aboard two destroyer minesweepers (one of them named the Zane) during the Pacific war. One of Wouk’s duties was as the ship’s communications officer, same as Keith and Thomas Keefer. Keefer was also an aspiring author who spent much of his off-time (and a bit more besides) writing a novel. It’s impossible to read the novel without imaging that many, if not most of the episodes in it are anecdotes from Wouk’s experience aboard ship during the war.

I still have that first Penguin paperback; it’s parked in a place of honor on the top shelf of my bedside bookcase and I’ve read it cover-to-cover at least three times, but still take it out now and again to read my favorite passages at bedtime when I’m not sure what to read. (The speech by Barney Greenwald at the end is one of the best.) I’ve since bought at least two hardbacked copies. I found the first one at a resale shop in Madison and read it several times before giving it away to a coworker who seemed interested in it, but I’m pretty sure he never read it. I went looking for the second copy at Powell’s bookstore while on vacation in Portland OR and found a first edition in its original dust jacket (squee!). This is the second or third time I’ve read it. I’ve read a couple other Herman Wouk novels (Winds Of War and War And Remembrance spring to mind), but haven’t enjoyed any of them more than The Caine Mutiny.

The Caine Mutiny | 12:58 pm CDT
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Tuesday, February 28th, 2017

I picked up a copy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre the last time I was at the resale store. I’ve wanted to read it since I watched the recently-made movie with Gary Oldman, and I have to say I could follow the plot of the movie a lot more easily than the book, which is not surprising. A movies about two hours long, while the book is something like four hundred pages and took me a week and a half to read. I couldn’t have lost the thread of the movie if I’d tried, but there was so much going on in the book that I kept turning back the pages to figure out who the characters were talking about. So I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked. And I’ve never read spy fiction before; I thought it would take to it easily, but that wasn’t the case. Maybe it’s an acquired taste.

spy world | 9:25 pm CDT
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Thursday, February 9th, 2017

I thought I would spend my lunch break today reading the latest book of fantasy and speculative fiction from Kameron Hurley, The Stars Are Legion. I ordered it last week, or thought I did, and when it didn’t show up on my doorstep and I didn’t get an email from Amazon about it, I checked the website last night and discovered I forgot to hit the “buy” button. D’OH! So I fixed that, but then I had to wait DAYS to get the book, which didn’t satisfy my desire to read it RIGHT NOW.

But wait … what’s this? A note at the bottom of my receipt that reads, “Would you like to read this book now?” I clicked on the “Hell, yes!” button and it was downloaded to my Kindle. Oh Happy Day! I read the first chapter right then, even though it was way past my bedtime.

Took the Kindle to work with me this morning. Flipped it open as I sat down with my microwaved leftovers. Tapped on the icon, turned the page, and … blank screen. Turned out that I’d been reading a “sample” of only the first chapter. No more.

Not that I’m complaining. I’m glad that I got to read as much as I did, but it was a GIANT BUMMER after looking forward all morning to reading another chapter or two. And now I gotta wait until tomorrow for the hardcover to arrive on my doorstep. *sigh* Well, if I gotta, then I spoze I gotta.

bummer | 9:59 pm CDT
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Friday, December 9th, 2016

“I had no idea, until I became a war worker myself, how low wages actually were. When my skimpy little paycheck of $23 a week came to me, I wondered how on earth I could ever live on that in wartime Washington if I were forced to pay my own room, board, transportation, doctors’ bills and other necessities out of it. Then I would look around the shop and wonder how the married women and mothers – the majority there – could support their children and parents as well as themselves on these wages.

“Not only do the women start at a low wage – they stay at it. At the Washington yard and at the other navy yards in the East and West, there are no automatic raises. Raises were accorded on some indeterminate basis. Promotions to supervisory jobs seem to be unknown not only at Washington but elsewhere in navy yards. Equal pay and promotions for women are one of the government standards of employment supported in writing by the Navy Department and seven other federal agencies. The navy yards themselves seem to be unaware of the fact; nor do they observe other standards adhered to on paper by the Department.

“I quickly adapted myself to eating sandwiches held between grimy hands. The yard gave us 20 minutes for lunch, but at least five minutes were gone by the time you had raced and waited at the understaffed canteen for cold,k watery chocolate milk or cola drinks (no coffee except on the midnight shift). The government standard of 30-minute lunch periods, hot lunches and a decent place to eat them is ignored by the Washington yard, which is nearer being the rule than the exception.

“I had mistakenly thought before going to work at the yard that minutes were precious in production. Once on the job, personnel officers and posters proclaimed the need for punctuality and perfect attendance. I was naturally surprised to learn after one day’s work that the main method of disciplining these “precious” workers was to lay them off for as much as a week at a time.l If you were one minute late in the morning, you were made to stand idle for one hour and be docked accordingly. If you forgot to tag in upon arrival at work or at lunch time, after three offenses you were laid off for a day.

“The women whom I met at the yard would stand for practically anything – five months without sleeping in a bed, a solid year on the graveyard shift so as to be home with the kids during the day, the double job,k indigestible lunches, long hours and no promise of a future after the war – all for miserably low wages. The longer I worked side by side with them, the more I admired their endurance – but the more I seethed to see them organized in a union that would help solve their problems. And the more I saw the necessity for really planned production, planned community service, labor-utilization inspectors, planned community service, labor-utilization inspectors, labor-management committees that function and are recognized, and a program to educate the workers about the issues of the war abroad and at home. I admired the patience of the women who stuck by their jobs, day after day, though it was obvious that their usefulness to the war effort was cut in half by the very working conditions which they endured.”

— Susan B. Anthony II, writing in The New Republic, May 1, 1944

I just came home from a visit to Half Price Books, where I scored a copy of “Reporting World War II Part Two: American Journalism 1944 – 1946,” an edition from The Library of America. One of my many dreams would be to line the walls of my house with shelves, and to stock those shelves of all the books published by The Library of America. Each sturdy, clothbound volume, clad in The Library’s trademark black dust jacket, seems to be just the right size to hold in one hand. The text of each page is set in a compact, clear font, and each volume comes with a ribbon sewn into the binding which you can use to mark your place. They are designed to be, and indeed are, classy books for a home library.

I’m especially happy to have found this particular volume because the people of my generation tend to glorify the second world war in a way that borders on indecency, and reading the work of Ernie Pyle, Bill Mauldin, Lee Miller, Edward R. Murrow, John Hersey and their like is such a bracing antidote to the most romantic notions floating around out there.

Which is not to say the men and women of “The Greatest Generation” didn’t do amazing things; they did. But I’ve never read a first-hand report that made them out to be any more than ordinary people who were doing what they were more or less forced to do until the war was over, which wouldn’t be soon enough, as far as they were concerned. Life during the war years was very hard; nobody thought it was all that glorious or romantic, and they said so.

I’m glad The Library of America put this volume together, and I’m going to look for Part One.

“The Greatest Generation” | 3:16 pm CDT
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Sunday, June 5th, 2016

I see that A Room Of One’s Own is for sale. It’s one of the few remaining independent bookstores in Madison, and I hope it finds a buyer because I would hate for Madison to lose another bookstore. I would buy it myself, except that I would have to rename it Go Away, I’m Reading, which I realize isn’t very inviting but I gotta be me. I would sit in an overstuffed chair in the corner, always reading a book but always happy to take your payment for the book you wanted, and to hand you change from the dented gray metal box on the end table beside the chair, but if you asked me a question I would have to answer, “Hang on, I gotta finish this chapter.” Or, if I knew that finishing the chapter wasn’t going to be enough, “Go away, I’m reading.” So I have a pretty good feeling that I wouldn’t be in the bookstore business very long. Still, it’s a pleasant enough fantasy.

Go Away | 10:19 am CDT
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Saturday, March 5th, 2016

I used to read fiction almost exclusively. The only time I would read non-fiction was when someone made me, like for school. And even then, I blew off most of my assigned reading to read fiction.

I loved fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy. Those stories had what seemed like limitless possibilities. What would a society of intelligent bugs be like? A writer could take that idea and run in just about any direction with it: Would they get along with humans? If they didn’t, would humans win or lose a war with them? If they did, would humans have sexual congress with them? (Sooner or later, even the most far-out ideas come back to sex.)

And then, for reasons I never quite understood, a switch flipped in my brain about twenty or twenty-five years ago and I began reading non-fiction. Mostly biographies, or American history. I think it started when I wanted to know more about American history during the second world war. I knew a lot about bombs and planes, but almost nothing about why America made the bombs and planes. Turned out there was a lot to learn. I think I’ve read more about that period of American history than any other, and I still wouldn’t dare say I know much about it.

But maybe five years ago I made a conscious effort, every now and then, to pick up some fiction that came with the recommendation of a friend or a critic, and read at least the first fifty pages, just to see if there was still some magic in the pleasure of reading made-up stuff. It would be a pity to miss out on a new voice as engaging as some of my old favorites. And waddaya know, I did find fiction that still raised my eyebrows in surprise, that was fun to read.

Most recently, I started reading The Name of The Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. An epic fantasy (660 pages! Run, Will Robinson!), it’s not the kind of book I would normally have tried to read for fun, and I say that as a guy who not only has all of Le Guin’s Earthsea books in hardback, but who takes them down from the shelf every couple of years and reads every page from beginning to end. I also say that as a guy who has started reading the epic tomes of Saberhagen and Martin, but could never get any further than the first fifty pages. Pure fantasy, with magic and swords, was never something I automatically loved the way, for instance, a story with a rocketship would.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I curled up on the sofa with The Name of The Wind one night and found myself immersed in a story that I didn’t emerge from until it was time to put on my jammies and turn in for the night. And even then I took the book with me, as it’s long been my custom to read a chapter or two in bed. It relaxes my neck, which lets my head sink into my pillow. Far from putting me to sleep, though, this is one of those books I have to read just one more chapter of, until I glance at the clock and warn myself that if I don’t stop, I won’t get enough sleep and I’ll be a grumpy cat in the morning.

I probably never would have looked for this book, or even heard of it, if I hadn’t gone on the JoCo Cruise. Rothfuss was there to read some of his work and to sit on a couple of panels to talk with the other authors who came along, and he was such a pleasure to listen to that I resolved to check out all his books from the library and try out every one of them, believing that surely at least one will appeal to me. Well, now I’m facing the daunting possibility that they will all appeal to me and I’ll soon have a whole shelf filled with them in hardcover. Oh well. There are worse compulsions.

The Name of The Wind | 9:56 am CDT
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Sunday, August 16th, 2015

Last night I finished reading The End Of All Things, the latest science-fiction novel from John Scalzi, and I have to say that I felt he overpromised and underdelivered by several orders of magnitude. All the things did not end. Not even close. There were, to be fair, a number of things that did end, but by far the vast majority of things did not end. In fact, I would have to say that, on a scale of “All Things,” the number of things that ended was statistically insignificant. So the title was a little misleading. Chalk it up to poetic license, I guess.

But other than that teensy-tiny little nitpick, I’d say it was a good read. The book is actually four novelettes (plus a bonus 25-page “deleted and alternate scenes” coda) set in the same storyline where Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War first conjured up what has become known in the mind-bogglingly technical nomenclature of science fiction fandom as “The OMW Universe.” You don’t have to read Old Man’s War to get maximum enjoyment out of The End Of All Things. It works just fine as a stand-alone collection, but I’m going to give you fair warning that The End Of All Things may leave you with an overpowering compulsion to get your hands on a copy of Old Man’s War, and from there you’re gonna want The Ghost Brigades and oh geeze you’re in it for the long haul at that point because, damn, these books are fun to read.

In the OMW Universe, humans colonize far-flung planets with the help of the Colonial Union, a organization that does not have the motto “We come in peace” emblazoned anywhere on its great seal, or a prime directive of non-interference with aliens it discovers on the planets it means to colonize. The CU exists to shove the aliens aside and make sure they stay shoved. This policy results in some hard feelings between humans and non-humans, to say the least. Hard feelings lead to conflict, and if I recall anything useful at all from the English Lit classes I took thirty-some years ago, it is that conflict is the heart and soul of exciting drama.

Each novelette in The End Of All Things is about a hundred pages long, give or take ten or twenty pages, so you could treat this book as four yummy afternoon snacks, but if you got it into your head to binge-read the whole thing from cover to cover, you could probably gobble it up in a weekend. Scalzi’s previous OMW book, The Human Division, was a similar collection of novelettes, and also one hell of a fun read. Again, you don’t have to read The Human Division to know what’s going on in The End Of All Things but, again, you’ll probably want to afterwards. Just sayin’.

Scalzi’s been compared favorably to Heinlein for his storytelling abilities; I would say that’s about right if you’re comparing Scalzi’s work to Heinlein’s earlier adventure novels, like Tunnel In The Sky or The Puppet Masters, not so much if you’re into Heinlein’s later works. For what it’s worth, when I read Scalzi’s stories, I get a vibe that’s a lot like the one coming from my favorite Joe Haldeman books, like The Hemingway Hoax or The Forever War, but I also feel as though I can detect a witty harmonic wave that’s a lot like the one running through Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker books. The characters in Scalzi’s stories talk like people I know and would be friends with; they take the time to intelligently think a situation all the way through, but they never take themselves so ridiculously seriously that I have to roll my eyes and moan, “Oh, come on, now.”

To sum up, an entertaining sci-fi adventure for a weekend, or to string out over several days, and don’t let the title put you off. All the things, relatively speaking, are pretty safe.

The End Of All Things | 5:19 pm CDT
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Sunday, June 14th, 2015

After our weekly visit to the farmer’s market on Madison’s west side, My Darling B and I crossed the street to the Hilldale Mall where B had to shop for a dress to wear to a wedding. B hates shopping with the blazing white intensity of a thousand exploding suns, but the wedding is just two weeks away, so, even though there was still some time left to procrastinate, she decided it was time to get it over with. As luck would have it, she fell in love with the very first dress she found, but it’s fire-engine red and apparently there’s some rule about wearing a dress to a wedding that would upstage the bride. She put it on hold and kept shopping, eventually ending up with what she called “the granny dress,” a cream-colored, knee-length dress with lots of sparklies. B loves sparklies.

While she was trying on dresses, I wandered down the street a few blocks to a garage sale on Midvale Avenue that I spotted as we drove past. There wasn’t much that interested me, and the only thing I eventually bought was a book published by the Associated Press to commemorate the 1969 moon landing. Titled “Footprints On The Moon,” it was a coffee table book chock full of familiar photographs of the space race, starting as usual with Sputnik and ending with lots of lofty prose about how Neil & Buzz walking on the moon had ushered the world into a new era, yada yada yada.

When I picked up the book I had no intention of putting it down again. I’ll buy almost any book or commemorative nick-knack that came out of the space race. I’d never seen this book before and as I opened the cover I thought, Oh nice, something new for my collection, but I didn’t think it was anything extraordinary at first. Then the book fell open to the middle where the folded newspaper pages were tucked away. My heart sped up. It was the first four pages torn out of the Wisconsin State Journal dated July 21, 1969. “ON THE MOON!” the headline on the front page blared in block capital letters over a full-color photo of Armstrong and Aldrin in a training scenario, using tongs to pick up rocks in their space suits. An inside page ran a snapshot of the video feed from the moon, unfocused and about as black-and-white as any photograph could be. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you might not realize what was going on.

I tucked the pages back in the book and carried it reverently to the front of the garage where a quartet of old friends were bantering with some customers about one of the items for sale. When one of them turned to me and offered to help, I handed over the book, which he opened to the inside cover to read the price: two dollars. “Footprints on the moon,” he said conversationally, flipping through the first couple pages before it fell open to the middle where he found the newspaper pages. I was sure when he saw those that he would either take them out because they weren’t part of the book, or at least charge me for them separately. He barely looked at them before he snapped the book closed. I held my breath. “Two dollars, please,” he said. I dug two singles from my wallet and handed them over; he thanked me, and I walked away with a tiny piece of history.

Shopping for dresses took a lot out of B, so we headed straight home where she planned to spend time in her garden to decompress. It had been raining for the past two days so the ground was probably too wet for her to plant anything. Even so, she figured she could at least pull weeds, but when we got home she wasn’t up for that any more. “A new bar opened in town with fifty-zillion taps,” she informed me, and she wanted to go there to see what that was about.

The bar was Mr. Brews Taphouse, a Wisconsin chain of bars that specializes in craft beers and features loads of local brews as well as national craft beers. I don’t know how many taps there were; it was too way many for me to bother counting them. We settled in at a hightop table next to the beer menu chalked on the wall, where I studied the options long and hard. I spotted a specialty brew called Sixty-One from Dogfish Head that a friend had raved about; I wish I could say it was as good as the hype, but I couldn’t be bothered to finish it. B ordered a delicious barrel-aged porter called Barrel Aged Brrrbon with Vanilla from Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland OR. She let me taste it, then she let me taste it again, and then I tasted it some more. Eventually she just said to hell with tasting and we called it sharing.

After the first draughts were out of the way, we ordered a flight of four beers: Dynamo Copper Lager from Metropolitan Brewing in Chicago; Bean Me Up Scotchy from St. Francis Brewing in St. Francis WI; Shake Chocolate Porter from Boulder Beer Company in Boulder CO; and Quinannan Falls Lager from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo MI.

We’ve been to Chicago on our own, but we have to go back soon on a proper beer tour because there’s some really good brews coming out of there. If Dynamo’s any indication, I could probably spend all day in the taproom of Metropolitan Brewing, sampling their beers.

St. Francis is just north of Milwaukee and we’ve enjoyed their beer before. Bean Me Up Scotchy is a barrel-aged version of their scotch ale, known as Pride, and I would guess they’ve added vanilla beans to the recipe to boot. Very smooth, and yummy enough to make me want more.

I don’t remember drinking any brews from Boulder Beer before, so that’s something I’m working on correcting, starting with this excellent porter.

Bell’s has been one of my favorite breweries ever since I tried Two-Hearted Ale, a very hoppy beer. I’m not so much into hoppy beers any more, but fortunately Bell’s has produced plenty of other styles that are ever so tasty, and this lager, I’m happy to report, is no exception. Plus, it comes from Kalamazoo, which gives me an opportunity to say Kalamazoo. I love to say Kalamazoo. Who doesn’t love saying Kalamazoo? Boring people, that’s who.

I can’t remember whether or not we visited Widmer Brothers when we were in Portland. Looking photos of the place and where it is on the map, I’m pretty sure we didn’t. If we didn’t, we were stupid. It looks like a pretty great place to visit. Plus, the vanilla porter we sampled was scrumptuous. Getting some right from the source would’ve been a treat.

Our sufficiencies well and truly serensified, we retired back to Our Little Red House to pass the rest of a quiet afternoon reading and napping until supper time. And that is a satisfying way to pass a Saturday afternoon.

walking on the moon | 9:04 am CDT
Category: beer, books, entertainment, food & drink, hobby, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, space geekery
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Thursday, April 9th, 2015

image of Kevin SpaceyI had just finished re-reading Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and was four chapters into The Lady In The Lake when the answer to a long-standing problem finally hit me. For years, I’ve wondered who could believably play Phillip Marlowe. So far, just about everybody who has played him in movies and television, with maybe one exception*, has fallen short. But then the other night I was reading a passage and saw it: Kevin Spacey. Kevin Spacey would make a great Phillip Marlowe.

Bogart is usually the guy everybody pictures as the greatest detective. And he wasn’t bad at all in The Big Sleep, but as good as Bogart looks wearing a trench coat and a fedora, he’ll always be Bogart first, and whoever he’s playing will be just some guy he played. That’s not his fault. He was a fine actor, but at this point he’s ascended to the level of a Hollywood legend so grand that he is and always will be Bogart, no matter whose name he’s using on screen.

Which is not to say that Kevin Spacey is not a Hollywood legend, far from it. Marlowe is such an icon of detective novels that he would have to be played by an actor with Spacey’s celebrity as well as ability. Maybe that’s why they went with Bogey, back in the day.

Read through a few paragraphs of Lady in the Lake and tell me you wouldn’t watch the hell out of a movie with Spacey gumshoeing his way through those scenes.

*The one exception I found was a guy named Phil Carey, who played Marlowe in a television series that ran from 1959 to 1960. I’ve never seen it, or seen Carey play Marlowe, but take a look at his face and tell me he doesn’t look like a hard-boiled Los Angeles detective.

marlowe | 3:59 pm CDT
Category: books, entertainment, movies, play
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Thursday, December 11th, 2014

Sean gave me a copy of The Martian for my birthday. I’d already read it, but it’s the thought that counts.

“You’ve already read it too, right?” I asked Sean, who always reads the books he gives to me.

“Of course,” he answered with a smile.

Tim hadn’t read it yet, so I gave it to him and he took it home.

The Martian is about an astronaut stranded on Mars who has to figure out how to survive for more than a year until the next scheduled crew arrives. This is my very favorite kind of story: The guy’s got unlimited electric power and can recycle air and water virtually forever, but he’s got much less than a year’s worth of food. And once he figures out how to do that, he’s got to work out how to get to the site where the next crew will land, quite a long ways from where he is. To survive, he has to use his wits. If he panics, or loses hope, he’s shit out of luck. These are the best stories there are.

The Martian is written as if it were a journal recorded by the astronaut, but only until you get about halfway through the book. From there, the novel began to follow the action when the people back on Earth discovered the astronaut they thought was dead actually wasn’t. The transition from journal to story frankly didn’t work for me. I felt like I’d been kicked out of the astronaut’s head and had to suddenly reorient myself in the world. The rest of the book jumped back and forth from the journal to the story, but after being kicked out I wasn’t much interested any more. I kept on reading just to get it over with.

Wonder how Tim likes it?

The Martian | 6:03 am CDT
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Sunday, November 9th, 2014

I’ve spent the past two-three, maybe four – okay, it might be five weeks now that I’ve been reading Ian Toll’s Pacific Crucible: War At Sea In The Pacific, 1941-1942. In my defense, it’s a thick book. Also, I can’t stop myself from paging back to re-read parts of it. It’s possibly the most engaging history of the Pacific war ever put to paper.

I got it as a birthday gift from my Mom several years ago and I read it in a mad rush almost right after she gave it to me. Then it went into a bookcase with all my other books about the Pacific war and stayed there until about two months ago, when I was browsing the shelves of Paul’s Book Store on State Street and found a copy of Edwin Hoyt’s How They Won The War In The Pacific: Nimitz And His Admirals, a book thick enough to hold up a corner of a three-legged sofa, and to tell the truth I still haven’t finished it. I got as far as page 490, just 14 pages short of the end, and maybe next week I’ll knock out the last of it one night before bedtime.

Hoyt’s book was excellent and goes a long way in describing the character of people like Nimitz, King, Halsey, and Spruance, people who have become icons in the decades since the war, but for me, Toll describes the same people in ways that makes them feel more human. I couldn’t stop myself from going back to Toll and reading whole chapters that described the same action that Hoyt had gone over in clinical detail. I’m not sure how he would take to being called sentimental, but Toll often seems to write as if he were recalling a memory of a relative who had been in the war. I don’t know exactly how he did it; I wish I did, so I could write characters as vividly as he does. Hoyt wrote an excellent chronicle of some of the most prominent players of the war, but Toll brought them to life as personalities.

reading frenzy | 5:19 pm CDT
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Monday, July 7th, 2014

I’ve been reading a story called Wool, a hugely popular sci-fi novel set in a distopian future when the surface of the planet is so toxic that people have to live underground in hermetically sealed silos because one deep breath of the outside air makes people double over in stomach-cramping pain and die.

The story opens with a pretty good hook: “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death.” Holston has been the sheriff of the silo for years, but this morning, the third anniversary of his wife’s death, he has decided that he wants to go outside. Three years ago, his wife told him something about the outside world that he has wondered about ever since. He wants to go see if it’s true.

Any one of the silo’s citizens can ask to go outside at any time. Technicians will even provide a specially-developed suit that will protect them from the toxins for a short time, and in exchange they are expected to clean the cameras that give the rest of the silo’s citizens a view of the outside world. Coming back in is not part of the bargain, however. The outside world is much too toxic for that, so “being sent to clean” has become a euphemism for capital punishment. Only people who have committed the gravest crimes are sent to cleaning. Asking to go outside is the gravest crime of all.

That’s why Holston was facing his death in the opening hook of the story. He was climbing because the silo is a subterranean bunker that goes deep into the earth, one-hundred and forty-some separate floors that shelter thousands of people. And they have just one smallish spiral staircase running up the middle of it. Everybody’s always climbing or descending those stairs. Whole pages are devoted to describing how they trudge, trudge, trudge up and down those stairs.

Funny thing  about that: For a society of stair-climbers, born and bred, they’re woefully bad at it. It takes them days to climb from the bottom to the top. They shoulder backpacks stuffed with provisions and make arrangements to stay overnight after climbing thirty or forty floors. I’m in lousy shape, but I walk down the stairs of the ten-story office building where I work, then climb back up to the top, all in fifteen minutes. About fifty pages in I was expecting a Twilight Zone-like reveal: The people of the silo are all legless! They climb the stairs on their hands! But no. That’s not it. They’re just kinda pokey.

The Zoneish reveal about the silo is, unfortunately, the answer to the question: Why do people even bother to clean the cameras after being sent outside where they will die as certainly as every other person who was sent out and not allowed back in? The answer, when I got to it after two-hundred pages, was just about good enough to keep me interested in reading half of the next two-hundred: the half that told the story of the last person to be sent outside. The other half was the story of an armed uprising that I just couldn’t make myself believe. In the end, I couldn’t make myself believe the other half, either.

There are other reasons I didn’t like Wool very much: I thought the dialog was as dull and cliched as a lot of the description was. People who lived forty stories apart spoke different dialects; that seemed more than a little farfetched. And the Evil Villain of the story wasn’t scary. He was amoral and kind of a pig, but he didn’t once scare me. But I seem to be in the minority; Wool was on the New York Times bestseller list. There are internet wikis and fan pages devoted to it. Everyone’s eagerly awaiting the film version by Ridley Scott. I hope it’s better than Prometheus.

Wool | 9:39 pm CDT
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Saturday, May 24th, 2014

I couldn’t finish reading Boomerang, Michael Lewis’s book about how all the bankers in the world simultaneously became irresponsible jerks. Not that it wasn’t a good book; far from it, the book was easy to read and the author seems to know quite a lot about how the financial world works and why it went into a tailspin, but I can only read so many stories about bankers contriving ways to steal other people’s money before I’m too disgusted to read any more. I got to within fifty pages or so of the end and just couldn’t go on. But still, as I said, good book. If you can stomach it.

Boomerang | 4:51 pm CDT
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Sunday, February 9th, 2014

I’ve found I can’t help but read news stories and books about global climate change. They literally compel me to stop what I’m doing and read, I guess because the premise that we are poisoning the only planet we will ever have to live on is so obvious that I would always like to know why the subject isn’t compelling to everyone. In spite of all the news stories, books, and especially in spite of all the noise generated by social media, I still haven’t figured it out. But I keep reading.

The author of “Field Notes From a Catastrophe,” Elizabeth Kolbert, has been traveling the world talking to people who have made it their life’s work to find out if the global climate is going to change so drastically that we will have a hard time continuing to live here. The answer, it turns out, is yes, very probably. “A hard time living here,” by the way, doesn’t mean we’ll have to weatherproof our homes or wear more sunscreen, stuff like that. It means drought, famine, disease, extinction – Cormac McCarthy kinds of “hard times,” just to be clear.

But it also turns out that we can do something about it because the climate change that we’re observing is a result of all the crap we release into the air. Then the question becomes, What can we do, How can we do it, and When do we do it? See how one question became three there? And then, for example, “When do we do it?” becomes, “Who, me? Right now? Why don’t those guys have to do it? How can that be fair? Why should I have to pay when they don’t?” It’s a hydra-headed problem that Kolbert addresses very directly. I liked her no-nonsense way of avoiding a sensationalist tone that others so easily slide into when talking about a subject like this.

And I liked that she made her argument very concisely; I started reading it on a lazy Sunday last weekend and finished it off this morning. It didn’t take me a week; those were the only two days I spent reading it. I spent my evenings this week reading a space opera, “The Hydrogen Sonata,” by Iain M. Banks and finishing off another chapter of “The Education of Henry Adams.” I’m an easily distracted reader.

Field Notes From A Catastrophe | 9:44 am CDT
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Sunday, December 8th, 2013

It’s possible that the seven wives of the first American astronauts may have been boring people. I haven’t met any of them. It seems unlikely, though. What I’ve read about them (up until now) suggests that they were at least as interesting as most people. And being military wives, they’d traveled back and forth across the United States and the world. They were married to fighter pilots who became test pilots before they were selected to be the first American astronauts. And finally, they were thrust into the public eye all but against their will to have virtually every molecule of their beings scrutinized.

So I doubt they were boring. They must’ve had at least a few memories worth putting to paper. And Lily Koppel’s book about them, The Astronaut Wives Club, hints at some of those memories, but the way Koppel spins them out, they bump and clunk up over odd, seemingly random non sequiturs. Here’s how she introduces Marge Slayton:

Marge Slayton welcomed the press boys with her silent-film-star smile. She and Deke were stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave, where the Joshua trees rose like gnarled arthritic hands out of the lakebed runway. She had been gung ho ever since the space race began on an October night in 1957 when Russia launched Sputnik over the United States on the same night Leave It To Beaver made its television debut. Sputnik means “fellow traveler” in Russian.

Koppel never explains what Leave It To Beaver has to do with Marge Slayton, or why we need to know the literal translation of “sputnik” to understand her relationship with Deke.

Aside from being peppered with a random sprinkling of barely-relevant facts, quite a few of the portraits of the wives as painted by Koppel are less than flattering. When Koppel introduces Trudy Cooper, she starts by dropping the bombshell that just before her husband Gordon was selected to become an astronaut, Trudy had run off to San Diego with their daughters to start life over after finding out Gordon had been cheating on her. But what started out as a story that might have painted her in a sympathetic light ends up making her look like a gold digger:

… she couldn’t bear to let such a choice assignment be forfeited … talks were already underway to give Life magazine exclusive coverage of the astronauts’ and their wives’ “personal stories” … The reward would be big: $500,000. If there was anything more amazing that Gordo could tell Trudy, she didn’t know what it was … the idea of half a million dollars, which was to be divvied up equally among the seven new space families … was like winning the lottery.

As tough as things might have been for a divorced woman in the 1960s, Trudy was a woman who was not without the wherewithal to make a new start on her own. A military wife, she would’ve had a network of people she could have turned to for support, and she was an accomplished pilot besides. Yet, the way Koppel tells the story, she chose to overlook Cooper’s infidelity for a one-time payout of a little more than $70K. There must have been just a little more to the story than that.

If there was, it must have been somewhere in the last half of the book that I didn’t read, and why would you do that? Nearly every story the wives could tell was broken up in a way that makes reading it almost painful:

Alan, Gordo and Gus were big racers, loved fast cars, and were planning to realize their hot-rod fantasies with their Life money. In the meantime, Gus and Deke continued to hunt in the wilds outside of Langley.

“Hey, where’d you get that cat?” asked Betty Grissom’s son Scotty about the black bear his father and his new astronaut friend Deke were dragging into the garage one Sunday. They’d brought home the kill, displaying the all-American frontiersman spirit that made the press call the boys “the greatest heroes since Christopher Columbus. The men who will take us to the stars!” The wives just looked at each other with frozen eyes.

“Thank goodness we got that money for our stories from Life,” said Betty.

I gave up after chapter three.

The Astronaut Wives Club | 10:20 am CDT
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Monday, September 2nd, 2013

Alas, Frederick Pohl

We have lost another giant.

Frederick Pohl | 4:59 pm CDT
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Monday, November 26th, 2012

This:

When the English stormed the Emerald Isle in the 17th century, they took everything that was worth taking and burned everything else. Thereafter, the Irish had no land, no money, no future. That left them with words, and words became books, and books, ingeniously coupled with music and alcohol, enabled the Irish to transcend reality.

And this:

Books as physical objects matter to me, because they evoke the past. A Métro ticket falls out of a book I bought 40 years ago, and I am transported back to the Rue Saint-Jacques on Sept. 12, 1972, where I am waiting for someone named Annie LeCombe. A telephone message from a friend who died too young falls out of a book, and I find myself back in the Chateau Marmont on a balmy September day in 1995. A note I scribbled to myself in “Homage to Catalonia” in 1973 when I was in Granada reminds me to learn Spanish, which I have not yet done, and to go back to Granada.

None of this will work with a Kindle. People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel. Think it through, bozos.

— Joe Queenan
My 6,128 Favorite Books

morning quote | 6:07 am CDT
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Sunday, November 18th, 2012

The only fit snack while reading is the olive in a martini.

— P.J. O’Rourke


book snack | 4:47 pm CDT
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Thursday, September 27th, 2012

image of Saturn

“…the Cassini spacecraft pulled into orbit around Saturn. There was nothing scientific about it, just pulling into orbit. Yet the Today Show figured that was news enough to put the story in their first hour – not in the second hour, along with the recipes, but in the first twenty minutes. So they called me in. When I get there, everybody says, ‘Congratulations! What does this mean?’ I tell them it’s great, that we’re going to study Saturn and its moons. Matt Lauer wants to be hard-hitting, though, so he says, ‘But Dr. Tyson, this is a $3.3 billion mission. Given all the problems we have in the world today, how can you justify that expenditure?’ So I say, ‘First of all, it’s $3.3 billion divided by twelve. It’s a twelve-year mission. Now we have the real number: less than $300 million per year. Hmmm. $300 million. Americans spend more than that per year on lip balm.’

“At that moment, the camera shook. You could hear the stage and lighting people giggle. Matt had no rebuttal; he just stuttered and said, ‘Over to you, Katie.’ When I exited the building, up came a round of applause from a group of bystanders who’d been watching the show. And they all held up their ChapSticks, saying, ‘We want to go to Saturn!'”

NEAL DEGRASSE TYSON, Space Chronicles

space chronicles | 8:30 pm CDT
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Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

image of book cover for John Scalzi's book RedshirtsI had John Scalzi’s book Redshirts on request for so long at the library that I forgot I’d even asked them for it until we stopped day before yesterday so My Darling B could pick up the dozen or so books she had on hold. When she came back to the checkout, Redshirts was on the top of her pile.

I started reading it immediately. Really, I read the first five pages while she was scanning her books. I read the first couple chapters as soon as we got home. I kept reading it as late into the night as I could, which isn’t very late on a work night. I read it on breaks. I read it at lunch. I finished reading it last night. I couldn’t stop reading it.

One of the reasons for that is, Scalzi’s books are mostly dialog. At least the ones I’ve read are. His characters hardly ever stop talking long enough for him to have to explain anything. They do it for him. And they’re never boring characters. If I could have just one wish, I’d like to meet actual people as witty and interesting as the characters in Scalzi’s books.

Being mostly dialog, Scalzi’s books are usually a quick read for me. The pages aren’t dauntingly packed with dense prose and, as I said, the banter is witty and entertaining. No matter how much I’ve read, I never feel I’ve read enough. I just keep gobbling it up until it’s almost midnight and I realize that, if I don’t go to bed soon, I’ll end up taking a nap for an hour before I have to head to the office and won’t I be cranky the rest of the day then?

If you know anything about Star Trek, you know that, when Captain Kirk, Spock and McCoy beamed down to a new planet each week, there was usually a crew member who beamed down with them, and the poor bastard’s one job on the away team was to get killed by aliens before the commercial break. Among science fiction nerds, expendable characters are called “redshirts” because security guards on the Enterprise, the guys who usually beamed down to protect Kirk and Spock, wore red shirts. The redshirt effect even carried over to Scotty, who got the crap kicked out of him on a regular basis.

In Star Trek, the fact that the security guards always die when they’re on an away team with Kirk seems to go unnoticed. In Redshirts, Scalzi’s characters are keenly aware of the fact and not only look for the reason, they try to figure out how to put an end to the madness. When I got to that part, I couldn’t have stopped reading for all the beer in town.

The book ends with four codas that I haven’t read yet. Probably have to take a long lunch today.

Redshirts | 6:07 am CDT
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Friday, September 21st, 2012

image of the Milky Way in the night sky“Unlike other animals, humans are quite comfortable sleeping on our backs. This simple fact affords us a view of the boundless night sky as we fall asleep, allowing us to dream about our place in the cosmos and to wonder what lies undiscovered in the worlds beyond.

The effect is to leave us restless for want of a plan to discover. We know in our minds, but especially in our hearts, the value to our culture of new voyages and the new vistas they provide. Because without them, our culture stalls and our species withers. And we might as well go to sleep facing down.”

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON


face up | 5:34 am CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Can you find Bonkers the Cat in this photo of my basement lair?

image of man cave

I bought a new camera a few weeks ago because I lost my old camera. Just lost it. I was taking photos while I was brewing beer or hammering on some wood or something, so between photos I put it somewhere very safe, and it is in such a completely safe place that I’m sure it will still be in good working order when I remember where that safe place is.

I went without a camera for a month or two because it took that long to get over how stupid I felt about losing my camera, but then one day while I was shopping for toilet paper or shoes or something completely unrelated to cameras, I wandered past the electronics section of our local Shopko store and I bought a camera. And it sucked. But the suckiness of the camera was Fuji’s fault, not Shopko’s. I took the crappy Fuji camera back and bought a Sony Cybershot, which was coincidentally the name of the camera that’s in a very safe place. And I like it a lot.

One of the things my Sony Cybershot can to is take panoramic photos. I can stand in the middle of my basement lair, for instance, and slowly turn in a circle after I click the shutter. The computer brain of the camera can remember everything it sees and somehow pieces it together into a nearly seamless photo of everything I pointed it at. You can see a few of the places where it had to sort of fudge things together. There’s a very obvious break in the florescent light on the left, for instance, but I’m really amazed at how good the rest of it looks.

lair | 6:12 am CDT
Category: Bonkers, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, O'Folks, play, typewriters | Tags:
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Friday, June 8th, 2012

We have been given eyes to see what the light-year worlds cannot see of themselves, Bradbury wrote. We have been given hands to touch the miraculous. We’ve been given hearts to know the incredible. Can we shrink back to bed in our funeral clothes?

Andy Chaikin, who has made a life out of writing about space explorers, remembers Ray Bradbury

requiem | 5:50 am CDT
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Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Ten years from now, or maybe as little as five, really, I may not remember where I was or what I was doing when I heard the news that Maurice Sendak had died, but I hope I’ll always be able to recall some of the happiest moments of my life, and that I could live them only because Sendak was alive.

Here’s one of them: Reading Where The Wild Things Are to my youngest son, Timmy, while he sat in my lap. I loved the part where I got to say, “That very night, in Max’s room …” and then pausing, Tim’s cue to throw his hands over his head and shout, “A FOREST GREW!”

Or this: The many pages of The Wild Rumpus. There were no words, so as I turned to the first two-page spread I would bounce Tim up and down in my lap and he would join me in chanting, “Rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpuussss!” Then we would turn the page and do it all over again.

Unless my memory’s gone south, Sean’s favorite Sendak book was In The Night Kitchen, probably because it was full of milk and cookies. Both the boys liked Chicken Soup With Rice, which is easily my favorite, right after Where The Wild Things Are.

When I heard of Sendak’s death today, I slumped in my chair and very nearly came to tears, until it occurred to me that it would be much more appropriate to make sure we all kept the wild rumpus going.

Rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpuussss!

Maurice Sendak | 9:01 pm CDT
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Saturday, January 14th, 2012

I’ve spent the morning and part of the afternoon making a few improvements around the house, starting with the book cases in the extra room.

It used to be Tim’s room, but we’ve been using it as an office. That’s a highfalutin way of saying we put a desk in there that’s been buried under a heap of bills and catalogs for more than a year. There’s a twin bed in there, too, that’s usually buried under old clothes and blankets, except for the two times a year that Sean comes to visit. Other than that, the room doesn’t get much use.

And it was a lot of extra space that wasn’t getting much use. Meanwhile, in the basement, three big boxes of books sat waiting to be unpacked. So, early last summer, I bought a couple of book cases from one of those unfinished furniture store, brought them home and left them untouched in the spare room for a couple months. Can’t rush these things.

Last month, though, I finally took the shelves out of one of the book cases, slapped a coat of finish on them and on the book case, waited for the whole shebang to dry before I sanded it all down and slapped on a second coat. I was going to paint them because I’m not very good at staining wood. It always comes out way too dark for my liking and usually kind of splotchy. Paint never does. My Darling B encouraged me to try again, though, pointing out that I could always paint over it if I didn’t like it. She’s kinda smart.

And what the hell, it did turn out looking pretty good, thanks to a stain sealer I found. I didn’t have to rub the stain off with a rag, just paint it on with a brush and leave it to dry, then sand it and brush on a second coat. I chose the lightest shade they offered and it turned out looking great, nothing like any of the other projects I’ve tried to stain.

I finished the first book case just before Christmas, and I finished the second one last week, but I still had to screw it to the wall because it’s almost eight feet tall and I didn’t want an eight-foot-tall book case loaded down with a couple hundred pounds of books to tip over on anybody. It probably wouldn’t happen, but those sound so much like famous last words that I didn’t unpack any books until I sank some anchors in the wall this morning and screwed it firmly in place. That sucker’s not tipping over now unless the whole house tips over.

Finally, I unpacked the books, three big boxes of them, and hauled them upstairs one arm load at a time. I expected they would almost fill the whole book case, with a little room left over for a few of our other books, and I wasn’t too far off. I got all the boxes unpacked, and carried up a couple stacks of books that were standing around in the basement, but that took up all the room there was. To make more room, we’ll have to weed out the books that could be sold to Half-Price Books or given to the friends of the library, but that’s for another day.

Because I still had other improvements to make. While My Darling B was out of the house, on a trip to the grocery store, I shut off the power to the lights and replaced a light switch that was going on the fritz. It worked about nine times out of ten, but that tenth time was iffy. The lights would blink on for a moment before going dark again. The same thing might happen with the next flick of the switch, or the lights might come on and stay on. It probably wasn’t the safest thing in the house, electrically speaking. I bought a new switch last weekend and have been waiting for the opportunity to switch off the power and replace it. This morning, I got it.

While I was in wiring mode, I did a little rewiring in the basement. A switch at the bottom of the stairs was not being used for anything, so I ran a wire from it to the lights in the corner of the basement where the beer’s kept. It seemed like such a simple idea, but I had to run the wire through the narrow gap between the stairway and the furnace uptakes, a place where spiders weave their webs and much dust has settled over the years. I went sweaty and I came out looking like a breaded chicken breast.

But it was worth it. That’s the same corner where the wash machine drains into a sink, and where the circuit breaker panel is mounted to the wall, so we go back there a lot – to fetch beer, to shut off the electricity when replacing light switches, and when taking part in the latest plumbing emergency caused by too much wash machine lint going down the drain. The lights used to be turned on by a pull chain, necessitating a long walk through the dark to the corner, but now we can switch them on at the bottom of the steps and walk all the way in the light. Go into the Light! Cross over children! All are welcome in the light!

After I finished that, there was plenty of clean-up to do because everywhere I tried to step there were wire ends I snipped off, bits of plastic insulation I stripped and, of course, chunks of meat and clots of blood I butchered from my hands. I swept up the big stuff, then vacuumed up the rest and, while I had the vacuum going, I cleaned up all the cat hair on the stairs, which must be where they do the bulk of their shedding. After just two or three weeks there’s enough cat hair on the stairs to make a Snuggie.

And that was all I had the energy for. Also, I felt gross. I went straight to the bathroom, peeled off all my clothes and stepped into the shower, cranked the handle up to “live steam” and stood there for twenty minutes, letting it blast all the crud away. And after dressing, I had a little nap, because I sort of felt I’d earned it.

improve | 3:30 pm CDT
Category: books, ch-ch-changes, daily drivel, entertainment, fun with electricity, Our Humble O'Bode, play
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Monday, January 2nd, 2012

There are five books in a teetering tower on top of my bedside book case. I think of these as the books I’m currently reading, even though I’m only really reading one of them right now: Empire of the Summer Moon. Before my birthday came along I was reading a dozen or so pages each night before bed from just one book, and was feeling mighty smug about having whittled it down to that, but then my mother sent me a book in the mail and it was so good I began to alternate between that and the previous book, any why not? I can juggle two books as well as anybody else. And then My Darling B gave me a lighthearted and not very long book for my birthday and I started to read that, and then my oldest son gave me a book about trains for Christmas … and now the pile by my bed is as big as it ever was.

Sean brought a copy of Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, by S.C. Gwynne, with him when he came to visit, and I started to leaf through it when he left it on the coffee table one day. Leafing through it turned into reading it and, in just a couple of days, I had finished several chapters, so Sean let me hang on to it so I could finish and return it to him later. I know woefully little about the Indian wars, and S.C. Gwynne, as it turns out, not only seems to know virtually everything about it, he can write about it in a style that is compellingly readable. This is his first book on the subject, unfortunately, so I will be waiting impatiently to see if he writes another that I can wolf down in a week and a half.

Before I started reading Empire of the Summer Moon, I was about halfway through Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, which My Darling B gave to me for my birthday. She knows about my weird fascination with typography and allows me to indulge it by stockpiling derelict typewriters. She spotted this book on a recent visit to The Tattered Cover, our favorite book store in Denver, Colorado, and snapped it up. Organized into easy-to-read chapters, each one of them a self-enclosed story, you could enjoy this book a as a casual read without having to be a font nerd. I was reading a chapter each night before bed until Sean left his book out to distract me.

Rival Rails: The Race to Build America’s Greatest Transcontinental Railroad is very much a book for train nerds, among which I happily count myself. Sean got me this one for Christmas. It’s unusual among the books he’s bought me in that he didn’t read it himself before he presented it to me, but then he’s not, sadly, the train nerd that I am. I read the opening chapter on Christmas morning but haven’t gotten back to it since and don’t know when I’ll be able to. Even so, it’s still on my bedside book shelf waiting for me to pick it up again.

Before all these other books came to my attention, I was reading the book my Mom got me for my birthday, Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941-42, by Ian W. Toll, who wrote Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, which I found with the new releases in the library some years back and put it on my TBR list, which never seems to get any shorter. Pacific Crucible instantly grabbed my attention and I was alternating between it and the last book in my bedside pile before all those other books came along. I hope to get back to it soon, but who knows.

Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight was the lone book by my bed for several weeks. Very geeky, it’s the story of the transformation of flight from the time when pilots controlled aircraft with a stick and pedals connected to the airplane by cables to the time when pilots were confronted with fly-by-wire systems and had to learn to deal with flight computers that took over a huge share of their jobs, a transition that arose from the manned space program. I was halfway through this book when Mom’s book came in the mail and distracted me.

towering | 7:04 pm CDT
Category: books, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

National Public Radio asked listeners to nominate their favorite fantasy and science fiction books, whittled the list down to a couple hundred, then asked listeners to vote for their top ten favorites. The aim was to discover what people considered to be the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books of all time.

I’m a little irritated that they mashed science fiction and fantasy together into the same pseudo-genre. They’re nowhere near the same thing, and anybody who says they are is just itching for a fight with the caretakers of the memory of Hugo Gernsback.

But I’m not coming to the party to split hairs, I’m here to pick my favorite ten titles from the ones they gave us. I copied and pasted the list to a notepad, then cut out all the titles that I was sure I hadn’t read. Then I went over the list again and cut out all the titles I wasn’t sure I’d read. That left me with:

1984, by George Orwell
2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, by Robert Heinlein
Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
Contact, by Carl Sagan
The Day of Triffids, by John Wyndham
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ
Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
The Heechee Saga, by Frederik Pohl
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
The Lathe Of Heaven, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Lensman Series, by E.E. Smith
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
Neuromancer, by William Gibson
The Number Of The Beast, by Robert Heinlein
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
Oryx And Crake, by Margaret Atwood
Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson
Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Sirens Of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
The Stainless Steel Rat Books, by Harry Harrison
The Stand, by Stephen King
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
Time Enough For Love, by Robert Heinlein
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak
World War Z, by Max Brooks

I’m pretty sure I’ve read all these books. I’d bet you a beer I had, anyway.

First off, the books I’m not going to vote for:

Battlefield Earth? Seriously?

I’m also not going to vote for a series of books. That’s just not fair to the authors who have just one book on the list.

Also, I’m going to vote mostly for science fiction books. I might as well just put that out there right now. And by “science fiction,” I mean books that are set in the world of the possible. Space ships are possible. However much woo and handwavium they use to get from here to there, space ships exist. Fire-breathing dragons are not possible. They are very cool, but they have never existed and will never exist. Therefore, Tolkein’s or Anne McCaffrey’s worlds are not in the same league as anything dreamed up by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells or Ray Bradbury. They are still very cool, they’re just not possible. That’s just how it is.

Why is Watership Down on this list? Anyone? Loved the story, but … why?

Now, out of all these titles, which are the ten that I liked best? Hmmm…

My number-one pick has got to be The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams’s masterpiece, his magnum opus, his gift to geekdom. I have a long-abiding faith that anyone who loves science fiction will always have a soft spot for this wonderfully witty work of art. I suppose it’s possible that someone out there doesn’t like H2G2 and yet can somehow prove they are Of The Body. Possible, but frankly I feel it’s only as possible as the chance that a stack of gold coins will issue from my posterior this evening. To love science fiction is to love this ingeniously funny send-up of the genre. It gets my first vote.

My second vote has to go to Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein, for several reasons. First of all: Just because. Second, who wouldn’t love a science-fiction novel about soldiers in robot armor blasting giant spiders from space? Spiders from space, people! How is that NOT one of the greatest science-fiction novels ever? Yes, I’m aware that there’s a fascist government. Yes, I’m aware the action is meant to be cover for the long, boring lectures about democracy morality blah blah blah. Whatever. I say again: Spiders from space! Soldiers in robot armor! This is nerd-o-riffic stuff! I have but ten votes to give, and this one must get my vote. I am helpless to vote otherwise.

The War of The Worlds gets my third vote if only because it’s got the all-time greatest opening of any science-fiction book I have ever read, and it just keeps getting better every time I read it:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

That’s not far from Shakespearian, folks. A story about the invasion of the Earth written in prose like that? Gotta be my third choice.

The Left Hand of Darkness gets my fourth vote, first because Ursula Le Guin is and always will be one of my favorite authors, and because this is not just a geek-o-riffic story about life on other worlds, but because it’s one of the all-time great stories about one of the most true friendships ever described. I’ve revisited this story every few years and I get something new out of it every time I do.

I decided to cast my fifth vote for Solaris even though I had one hell of a time learning to like it. In fact, I flat-out disliked it the first time I read it. I thought it was turgid to the point of being nearly impenetrable, but after it had simmered at the back of my mind for a while I picked it up and re-read it again. By the time I finished, I liked it enough to think on it a bit longer, then picked it up again several months later and read it a third time. As it grew on me I realized that this is an iconic work of science fiction, a work that every reader of science fiction should have in their bookcase. I should have had it in my bookcase! And now I do. And I’m voting for it in my top ten.

Brave New World deserves a vote as one of the seminal science fiction works of the genre. Some people would say that Frankenstein should get a vote for the same reason, but Frankenstein is long-winded and makes me sleepy, while Brave New World is funny and keeps me awake. Vote.

I’d have to give a vote to Rendesvouz with Rama not because I’m a rabid fan of Arthur C. Clark – if I were, I’d probably vote for 2001: A Space Odyssey instead – but because it fits my idea of a truly geeky science-fiction novel: Astronauts board an apparently abandoned alien vessel as it enters the solar system. While they’re inside, trying to figure it out, it comes to life. Clark could have made this into a pulp fiction horror story, but instead he let it play out as a story of wonder and discovery. I read the book just once and it still sticks in my head after all these years.

Ringworld has a hard and fast claim on my vote as one of my all-time favorites. For my money, some of the best SF stories are gadget porn. Ringworld is a story set in a world that is one of the greatest artifacts ever conceived, a ring around a star. Mind blown.

I’m not sure why Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut’s memoir of his incarceration as a prisoner of war during World War Two, is on this list, but since it is, and there are space aliens in it, it gets my vote. Everyone should read this book at least once. Also contains the single funniest line I’ve ever read in a work of fiction: “Billy Pilgrim made a noise like a rusty door hinge as he emptied his seminal vesicles into Montana Wildhack.” Hi-ho.

And finally, the one vote I have left would have to go to The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a book that’s going to be read by lots and lots of people for a lot of years. Great story.

skiffy | 10:25 pm CDT
Category: books, entertainment, play | Tags: , , , ,
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Saturday, June 4th, 2011

After lunch at Cronies Cafe yesterday my mom asked me, as we stepped out into the street, “Did you want to visit the book store?”

“Oh, heck yes!” I answered, because, you know, books!

She was referring to Book Cellar, a book store on main street. I stop by every time I visit because it brings a smile to my face to walk into an independent book store and I just don’t get to smile like that often enough any more.

While mom poked through the books I wandered down to their extensive selection of CDs, found the section where they kept the Leo Kottke recordings and somehow, using every fiber of self-control I possessed, kept myself from buying every single one I could find. There were six or seven, but I settled for just two, the armadillo album – the cover says “6- and 12-String Guitar”, kind of a mundane name – and “Standing In My Shoes.”

Felt pretty good about how restrained I was until I got to the checkout counter and my eyes fell on a couple of Nora Jones CDs in the rack right under the register. Dammit! I love Nora Jones! Every time Pandora plays one of her tunes I tell myself I’m going to order one of her albums one of these days. Well, the two I wanted to start with were only six and eight dollars, so I added them to the Kottke disks. So much for self-control.

And I got a book, three bucks.

self control | 1:27 pm CDT
Category: books, daily drivel, entertainment, food & drink, Mom, O'Folks, play, restaurants | Tags: , , ,
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Sunday, May 1st, 2011

I froze my ass off today. Really. I have no ass.

I sat in line with My Darling B – stood, for a while, but mostly sat, so I’m defaulting to that – for five hours this morning to buy tickets for the Great Taste of the Midwest. The skies were clear, the day was sunny, the temps were in the low fifties. Wouldn’t have been a bad day at all to sit in a lawn chair all morning reading or playing cards or otherwise whiling away the time as we waited for the doors to open. When the wind wasn’t blowing it wasn’t a bad day, but the wind was blowing more than it wasn’t, and it was blowing hard. No gentle breeze, this wind made reading a book difficult, reading the Sunday paper impossible (I still haven’t gotten around to reading it), and the only card game we might have played would have been Fifty-Two Pickup. We could have played that game just once. And it sapped every bit of warmth, right down to the marrow of my bones, out of me and My Darling B in just an hour, maybe less, so the other four hours we were technically cold enough to be dead, had anybody with medical training checked, which thankfully never happened or I’d be in a body bag at the morgue right now.

Why would we wait in line for so long, risking death by hypothermia, for tickets to a beerfest? Ah, this is no mere beerfest. This is the beerfest, the Great Taste of the Midwest, tickets for which only the blessed and the saved can get hold of. The Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild want to keep the festival to a manageable size, so they sell just 6,000 tickets to the event each year, 3,000 by mail and 3,000 at various retail outlets across Madison. The manner by which they sell the tickets is so arcane that the uninitiated have almost no chance of getting in.

The mail-order tickets, for instance, are sold by lottery. You must mail in your request on a certain date. Requests that are postmarked on any other day are sent back. They sell just two tickets to each person. The orders that are postmarked on the correct day are thrown into a hat (the biggest hat in the world, I’m told; a fedora, in case anybody’s asking) and 1,500 letters are drawn at random. The rest are sent back to the unlucky ones who then scour Craigslist hoping that someone will have a change of plans or who bought an extra for a friend who can no longer make it. There may be a few scalpers among ticket buyers to the Great Taste, but I’ll bet a six-pack of my favorite Hinterland brew there are darned few.

The sale of 600 tickets at Star Liquor on Willy Street opens at twelve o’clock promptly, and people start lining up to buy them the night before. No, really. People camp out overnight to get hold of a couple tickets to this event, that’s how devout they are about this enterprise. We are not that devout. We didn’t get in line the night before, or even before sunrise this morning; we showed up at about eight o’clock, an hour earlier than we did last year because we just barely got there under the cutoff. How did we know we cut it so close? Because there’s a guy at the end of the line helpfully counting noses. Anybody in line after Standee Number Three-Hundred was hoping against hope that at least some of the people ahead of them were not buying two tickets each. That’s got to be a nail-biter.

This year, getting in line an hour earlier, we were just under the wire again. I guess that means next year we’ll have to show up at seven. *sigh*

To make the wait as pleasant as possible we brought along camp chairs, a couple of books (I brought along a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, a novel I’d started only the day before, figuring it would keep me plenty busy; little did I know. In two hours I managed to bull my way through twelve pages, so dense was the text. At this rate, I won’t finish until Christmas) and lunch. We did not bring winter sleeping bags. If only the day had not appeared to be so warm and inviting, we might have wrapped ourselves in thick, quilted flannel and kept ourselves toasty warm. But no. That would not have been consonant with the wishes of The Great Cosmic F.U.

To stave off complete and total conversion to human Pop-sicles we took turns walking to a local grocery store. I made two trips to a bakery, first to get scones, then to refill my coffee mug. It helped a bit, especially the hot coffee, but eventually I was completely numb from the tips of my fingers all the way up to the wrist. My lips were numb and I thought they were probably corpse-blue, too, but nobody said anything so maybe they weren’t.

I started packing up the camp chairs about twenty minutes before twelve and, not two minutes later, the line lurched forward in the first of many accordion-like compressions that eventually took us all the way to within a few paces of the corner of Few Street and Willy Street. If anything, I felt even colder from here to the very doorstep of Star Liquor. Most of the wait was in the shade, and there was some kind of freak weather pattern whipping the wind up to near-tornadic strength in the parking lot next to Star Liquor where the line snaked up to the side entrance. B kept pressing herself close against me so I can only assume she felt at least as cold as I did. My lips were too numb for me to form intelligible words, so I couldn’t ask her.

A few minutes past one o’clock we finally walked out of the store with tickets in hand, grinning like idiots. Once home, I made a big pot of hot coffee at the request of My Darling B, who curled up on the sofa with a steaming hot mug o’ java, wrapped up in quilts, where she stayed for at least an hour, slowing thawing out.

Hypothermic | 5:30 pm CDT
Category: beer, books, coffee, entertainment, festivals, food & drink, Great Taste of the Midwest, My Darling B, O'Folks, play
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Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

David Sedaris’s laundry list of the worst ways to die, from When You Are Engulfed In Flames:

My list of don’ts covered three pages and included such reminders as: never fall asleep in a Dumpster, never underestimate a bee, never drive a convertible behind a flatbed truck, never get old, never get drunk near a train, and never, under any circumstances, cut off your air supply while masturbating. This last one is a nationwide epidemic, and it’s surprising the number of men who do it while dressed in their wife’s clothing, most often while she is out of town. To anyone with similar inclinations, a word of warning: after you’re discovered, the police with take snapshots of your dead, costumed body, which will then be slid into photo albums and pored over by people like me, who hole themselves up in the records room, moaning, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” not sure if they’re referring to your plum-colored face or to the squash blossom necklace you’ve chosen to go with that blouse.

Good to know.

Engulfed | 7:56 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

I realize I posted a quote from Michael Perry’s Coop just yesterday, but I can’t help bringing this one to your attention today. Consider this a forewarning. I have a feeling this book’s going to be pregnant with quotable material.

Sometimes during the day when the cows were settled we kids went to the barn and lay lengthwise along the backs of the tamer animals to absorb their warmth. Because of the way she tucks her hindquarters, a cow at rest tilts off-kilter, allowing you to nestle rump to withers against the ridge of the backbone while draping your limbs across a hemisphere of abdomen. You rise and fall with each bovine breath, and if you hold especially still you will feel the subterranean thump of a five-pound heart. At regular intervals the cow will lurch softly and summon a cud. The dewlap ripples, and a wad of ruminated forage rises visibly up the throat. Rolling the bolus to her tongue, she’ll work her jaw forty or so times, swallow, wait a patient moment, then raise another. It’s hard to imagine regurgitation as a form of meditation, but for cows, it is so.

I thought this passage was worth quoting for exactly three reasons:

As far as quirky juxtaposition goes, I’m not sure you can get quirkier than pairing regurgitation with meditation. Or maybe you can but I’m just not trying hard enough.

And from a grammatical point of view, “summon a cud” has to be the quirkiest juxtaposition of noun and verb I have seen in recent memory. Possibly longer. But I love it. It’s perfect.

But the quirkiest position I would ever dare to juxt in real life would have to be laying on a cow’s back. It simply would not have occurred to me ever under any conditions, or at least I think so now. But since he mentioned it, it seems as natural and obvious as crawling into a hammock, which you know in your heart is a pretty goofy way to relax if you’ve ever done it.

Anyway, them’s my thoughts on that.

Coop once again | 6:23 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

From Michael Perry’s Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg:

I am open to the idea of home birth because I love my wife and this is what she wants, but I am also bucky about the idea of delivering babies old-style if it is simply in service of some whole-grain earth mother sensibility picked up during a women’s studies course in Colorado. As a former fundamentalist gone agnostic, I tend to dig my heels in at the first whiff of evangelism, whether it be deployed in the service of Girl Power, salvation, or the curative wonders of organic yams. There is also the frank issue of testosterone — four years in nursing school and three Indigo Girls albums notwithstanding, I am not purged of all and not interested in achieving complete anemia. In short, a man likes to drive. Even when he is lost.

Amen to that, brother.

Coop | 5:35 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Monday, February 14th, 2011

The ordinarily even-tempered academic Henry Adams goes all Chuck Norris on De Witt Clinton:

With a violence that startled uninitiated bystanders, Cheetham in his American Citizen [newspaper] flung one charge after another at [Aaron] Burr; first his judiciary vote; then his birthday toast; then the suppression of a worthless history of the last Administration written by John Wood, another foreign adventurer, whose book Burr bought in order, as Cheetham believed, to curry favor with the New England Federalists; finally, with the rhetorical flourish of an American Junius, Cheetham charged that Burr had tried to steal the Presidency from Jefferson in February, 1801, when the House of Representatives was divided. All the world knew that not Cheetham, but De Witt Clinton thus dragged the Vice-President from his chair, and that not Burr’s vices, but his influence made his crimes heinous; that behind De Witt Clinton stood the Virginia dynasty, dangling Burr’s office in the eyes of the Clinton family, and lavishing honors and money on the Livingstons.

All this was as clear to Burr and his friends as though it were embodied in an Act of Congress. No one ever explained why Burr did not drag De Witt Clinton from his ambush and shoot him, as two years later he shot Alexander Hamilton with less provocation.

Yeah! Whyn’t he just SHOOT ’em? Some people just need killin’!

BLAM! | 8:17 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Thursday, February 10th, 2011

When it sucks to be a Genius:

John Fitch, a mechanic, without education or wealth, but with the energy of genius, invented engine and paddles of his own, with so much success that during a whole summer Philadelphians watched his ferryboat plying daily against the river current. No one denied that his boat was rapidly, steadily, and regularly moved against wind and tide, with as much certainty and convenience as could be expected in a first experiment; yet Fitch’s company failed. He could raise no more money; the public did not want it, would not believe in it, and broke his heart by their contempt. Fitch struggled against failure, and invented another boat moved by a screw. The Eastern public still proving indifferent, he wandered to Kentucky, to try his fortune on the Western waters. Disappointed there, as in Philadelphia and New York, he made a deliberate attempt to end his life by drink; but the process proving too slow, he saved twelve opium pills from the physician’s prescription, and was found one morning dead. Fitch’s death took place in an obscure Kentucky inn, three years before Jefferson, the philosopher-President, entered the White House.

– from “The Formative Years: A History of The United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison,” by Henry Adams

Genius | 7:21 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Saith the Duc de Liancourt, writing in 1797:

… it must be acknowledged that the beauty of the American ladies has the advantage in the comparison [to European ladies]. The young women of Philadelphia are accomplished in different degrees, but beauty is general with them. They want the ease and fashion of French women, but the brilliancy of their complexion is infinitely superior. Even when they grow old, they are still handsome; and it would be no exaggeration to say, in the numerous assemblies … it is impossible to meet with what is called a plain woman.

As to the young men, they for the most part seem to belong to another species.

Not much has changed in two-hundred-plus years, has it?

– from “The Formative Years: A History of The United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison,” by Henry Adams

The Ladies | 7:29 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, play
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Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Politics was a lot more fun back in the day:

… delegation-selection proceedings were under way in several states that had not yet adopted the primary system. On 23 January, Oklahoma’s Fourth District Republican convention grotesquely dramatized the factionalism of a party splitting three ways.

The local committee chairman, Edward Perry, was a Roosevelt man who hoped to create a progressive stampede for the Colonel. A letter from Gifford Pinchot reminded him that, as yet, La Follette was Taft’s only official challenger. Perry read the letter to the convention, but made plain that he still favored Roosevelt. This infuriated the rank and file supporting Taft. Pandemonium ensued, with Perry roaring, “Slap Roosevelt in the face if you dare!” over contrary shrieks and howls. A posse of fake Rough Riders invaded the hall. For fifteen minutes they tried to storm the stage, but found it harder to take than the Heights of San Juan. Cigar-smoking Taft forces repelled them. One cavalryman got through on a miniature pony: the young son of Jack “Catch-’em-Alive” Abernathy, a friend of Roosevelt’s famous for seizing wolves by the tongue. The boy shrilled “I want Teddy!” to the crowd, touching off further furor. But then the organization men suppressed him, and the convention endorsed Taft over La Follette by a vote of 118 to 32. Perry, locally known as “Dynamite Ed,” showed his displeasure by going outside and detonating five hundred pounds of high explosives.

I almost hate to admit this, but I’d sign up to be a Republican in a minute if they still had guys like “Dynamite Ed” Perry.

Dynamite Ed | 8:31 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play
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Tuesday, December 14th, 2010

Recently finished books:

Millenium, by John Varley – based on the short story Air Raid, and I’m not sure I can say making it into a book improved it. The short story wowed me so much that it resurfaced in my memory just last week and and sent me searching the internet for it. When I found that Varley had expanded it into a novel I went to the nearest used-book store and bought a copy.

The germ of the story is this: Time travelers from the future are kidnapping people who disappeared without a trace fro the past. In the book, Varley spends a lot of time on how and why, but not enough on the main characters, and the ending is not satisfying at all. My Darling B read it, too. She liked the story quite a lot but was also disappointed by the ending.

I still want to find the short story and read it again. Any short story that sticks with you for thirty years must still pack some punch.

America’s Women, by Gail Collins – I love finding Gail Collins’ columns in The New York Times and I loved finding out that she wrote a book even more. Her columns are as witty as they are fun to read, and so was this book, a history women’s place in the culture of America from the sixteenth century on.

First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, by James R. Hansen – truthfully, I haven’t finished this yet, but I’m getting very close. I bought it new about a year and a half ago, flipped ahead to the part where Armstrong joins the Apollo program and read all the way through the middle of the book until the astronauts started their round-the-world goodwill tour. Then, last week, I picked it up again and started reading from the beginning and managed to plow about a hundred pages into it, to the point where Armstrong becomes an experimental test pilot working on the X-15.

And then I stopped, for two reasons: My Darling B gave me a copy of Edmund Morris’s biography of Teddy Roosevelt for my birthday. I’ve been waiting years for Morris to publish this last volume of his three-volume Roosevelt biography, and when I heard on the radio it was finally out I stopped by the library to put a hold on a copy for myself, because I’m too cheap to shell out thirty-five bucks to get a first-run hardcover copy for myself. But, as it turns out, My Darling B wasn’t that cheap. She’d been looking for birthday gift ideas and must have heard me mention this to Tim, who’s almost as big a fan of TR as I am. So when I got it, I had to stop reading everything else and start wolfing down this five hundred-page biography. I might finish by Christmas.

I stopped reading First Man for another reason: It’s dense. Truly, this is the most complete biography I have ever read. James R. Hansen is a master at stuffing as many facts into a sentence as any author I have ever read. If he can’t work a fact in without disrupting the flow of a sentence, he’ll cram it in parenthetically, and damn the flow. My brain is bulging with new muscle tissue from wrestling with each and every passage of this book, and I’ve got hundreds of pages left to go!

But damn, this is a fantastic book for completists, and if you’re a total nerd for the moon landing, descriptions of the first landing don’t get any more detailed than the one in this book. I plan to read straight through it again, knowing that I’ll get another nerdgasm from it even though it’ll take me another six months to get there.

The End | 6:26 am CDT
Category: books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Robert Goddard was the father of American rocketry, or maybe something more like the crazy uncle. Like Tsiolkovsky in Russia and von Braun in Germany, he not only cobbled together working rockets, he was inspired by a compelling inspiration to fly to other planets, which was crazy talk in his day, and I mean people called Goddard crazy, but not at all in a joking way. Even though he could build flying rockets, most people thought of them as toys and Goddard as a raving nutjob, totally whacko, out of his freaking gourd to think he could ever fly to the moon on one.

He didn’t take it too well. To avoid any further harsh criticism, he packed up his rockets and moved from the east coast to the desert of New Mexico, and didn’t share the results of his experiments with anybody else. Fine, then, I’ll just take my rockets and go!

Goddard might have been a trifle insecure about his calling, but he was a romantic right down to his bones. Here’s a story I’d never heard about him before I read it in First Man, the biography of Neil Armstrong:

At age seventeen, Goddard climbed to the top of his backyard cherry tree. “It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England,” recalled Goddard in notes for his autobiography, “and as I looked toward the fields to the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet … I was a different boy when I descended the tree from when I ascended, for existence at last seemed very purposive.”

For the rest of his life, Goddard celebrated October 19 as his “Anniversary Day.” After his marriage in 1924, he lived with his wife in a house near where the cherry tree stood. When he subsequently moved his rocket-testing experiments from Massachusetts to New Mexico, he visited the tree whenever he could.

Oct 19, 1927: “Got rocket weighed and ready, in afternoon. Stopped at cherry tree at 6 p.m.”

Oct 19, 1928: “Took out trailer to farm, with Sachs. Went out to cherry tree.”

Oct 19, 1932: “Worked on flow patterns in afternoon. Went to cherry tree — Anniversary Day.”

In the fall of 1938, Goddard received a letter from a Massachusetts friend informing him that his cherry tree had been uprooted in a nor’easter. In his journal that night, the father of American rocketry wrote, “Cherry tree down — have to carry on alone.”

A Different Boy | 9:00 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

I found out the other day that a guy I know collects books as rabidly as I do, if that’s possible. He’s got bookshelves all over his house and apparently likes them as much for their smell as their looks or their content. And what sane human doesn’t? Well, lots, it turns out, but that’s a litmus test as far as I’m concerned. Who doesn’t adore the smell of books, knows not the fragrance of life itself. I just made that up. Take that, Shakespeare.

While we were talking about the kinds of books we like to collect, he mentioned that he has a huge collection of science fiction books, which reminded me of the story of the time my dad found my sci-fi collection. In high school and through most of college, science fiction was the genre I read voraciously. Many people don’t know this, but the word “voraciously” was coined to describe the way I gobbled up sci-fi paperbacks. That’s not some urban legend, it’s from no less an authority than Wikipedia. You can check it out … in just a minute. Wait, not yet. Okay, now.

Before I went off to begin what I thought would be my first and only enlistment in the Air Force, I stashed my hundreds of books in a deep, wide drawer under the clothes closet in my room. Two layers of books stacked three or four high made the drawer so heavy it would open an inch or so if I dug in my heels and jerked on the handles with all the piss and vinegar I was worth. I hated leaving them behind but I wouldn’t have anywhere to put them for at least a year and a half while I was in basic training, then in tech school, so I shoved my butt up against the drawer and closed it up tight as Tut’s tomb, vowing to return one day.

I was halfway through a year-long tech school when my dad had a medical emergency. An aneurysm in his brain blew open like a cracked radiator hose and he was bedridden for quite some time with nothing to do but learn to speak and read and write all over again, among other things. Lucky for him, he found my stash of sci-fi books, but the funny thing is I didn’t find out about this until many months later. He started on the nearest book in the top layer and worked his way to the back, and every time he finished a clutch of books he’d carry a bunch down to the local library, where they had a policy of trading paperback for paperpack. So not only did he get to read the two or three hundred books I’d salted away, he got to read another couple hundred he got in trade.

When I came home on leave from tech school and jerked open the drawer, looking for a favorite story, it flew open, being empty by then. My anguished cry echoed back and forth inside it.

“Does anybody know what happened to all the books that were in the closet drawer in my room?” I asked both my parents when I finally recovered my wits enough to get to my feet and stagger into the living room.

“Oh, sure,” Dad said, and told me all about the library paperback trade. “Those were a lot of fun to read,” he added. He probably even thanked me for saving them all for him to find later, too. Well, I couldn’t get mad at him, could I? And he did get a doubly good deal out of them. I sure did miss those books, though.

Dad Does Books | 6:58 pm CDT
Category: books, Dad, daily drivel, entertainment, O'Folks
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Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

image of book: Truman by David McCullough

I finished it! It’s been about three weeks and almost a thousand pages after I started, and I am honestly sorry it’s over. I think I can say this is the best biography of anybody by anybody I’ve ever read. Maybe I’m biased a bit by the fact that I’m a huge fan of David McCullough fan, but in my mind it’s like this: When a historian can write a thousand-page book about Truman and make every single page a delight to read, that’s quite an accomplishment by almost any standard.

If you still would never read a book this thick just because you couldn’t commit yourself to reading anything that large – and that’s no small consideration; my only gripe about this book is that it’s almost too big and heavy to hold open in two hands – I would beg you to reconsider, if only to read Chapter 14, “Fighting Chance,” devoted to Truman’s whistle-stop campaign for re-election in 1948. Chapter 13, “The Heat In The Kitchen,” is a terrific lead-in to the campaign, but if you read nothing else, read Chapter 14. I couldn’t tear myself away from it.

I’ve always thought of Truman as my favorite modern president. I haven’t decided yet if my very favorite of them all is John Adams or his son, John Quincy Adams; there’s plenty to like about them both. (McCullough wrote a cracking good bio of John Adams, by the way.) But this book has cemented my opinion of Truman as the best of the presidents who walked the earth while I was alive. (I was shocked to learn that Truman passed away in December, 1972. I was two weeks past my twelfth birthday at the time. It must have been a huge event, and yet I have no memory of it.)

Born in the Gilded age, the age of steam and gingerbread Gothic, Truman had lived to see a time of lost certainties and rocket trips to the moon. The arc of his life spanned more change in the world than in any prior period in history. A man of nineteenth-century background, he had had to face many of the most difficult decisions of the unimaginably different twentieth century. A son of rural, inland America, raised only a generation removed from the frontier and imbued with the old Jeffersonian ideal of a rural democracy, he had had to assume command of the most powerful industrial nation on earth at the very moment when that power, in combination with stunning advances in science and technology, had become an unparalleled force in the world. The responsibilities he bore were like those of no other president before him, and he more than met the test.

Ambitious by nature, he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines; work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear. Yet he was not and had never been a simple, ordinary man. The homely attributes, the Missouri wit, the warmth of his friendship, the genuineness of Harry Truman, however appealing, were outweighed by the larger qualities that made him a figure of world stature, both a great and good man, and a great American president.

Truman – Finished! | 6:38 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play
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Monday, October 18th, 2010

I’m two-hundred pages into the biography of Harry Truman by David McCullough. My Darling B gave it to me for Christmas after I spent months trolling the aisles of every used book store in town, looking for it. Now that I have a copy, I notice that there are three on the shelves at Saint Vinnie’s that have been there for weeks. Isn’t that just the way?

I’ve just reached the point in the book where Harry – he lets me call him Harry – gets into politics, by way of the Kansas City political machine, run by the Pedergasts PeNdergasts. Is there anything today that compares to good old-fashioned politics?

The pattern of the organization followed the pattern established by law for election purposes. There was a ward leader, a precinct captain for each precinct, and a block leader for every square block within the precinct. The precinct captain was the first person who called on newcomers to the neighborhood, who saw that their water was connected, gas and electricity turned on. Coal in winter, food, clothing, and medical attention were all provided by the organization to whomever was in need at no charge.

When winter storms hit the city, trucks from the various Pendergast enterprises would arrive int he West Bottoms loaded with overcoats and other warm clothing to be handed out to the homeless, the drunken derelicts, to any and all who were suffering. At Christmas, Tom [Pendergast] gave out three thousand free dinners. Many people would remember for the rest of their lives how at the height of the deadly influenza epidemic in 1918-19 and at great personal risk Tom Pendergast had made a personal survey, house to house to see who needed help.

All that was expected in return was gratitude expressed at the pools on election day. And to most of his people this seemed little enough to ask and perfectly proper. Many, too, were happy to be “repeaters,” those who voted “early and often” on election day. The woman who worked in the hospital laundry, as an example, started as a repeater at age eighteen, three years shy of the voting age … she would vote at least four or five times before the day ended. “Oh, I knew it was illegal, but I certainly never thought it was wrong.”

Man, they sure knew how to rig an election back in the day.

Truman by McCullough | 8:57 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play
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Friday, October 15th, 2010

image of the moon

I just finished reading Dark Side of the Moon, a book about Nasa’s lunar landing project. I feel it is safe to say that author Gerard DeGroot, a science writer from Scotland, is no friend of America’s manned space program, or any other country’s.

Time out: What, by the way, is a shorthand way to say “a project to send people into space” that doesn’t sound girl-hating and old fashioned? Because “crewed space program” sounds just like “crude space program,” so that’s out, and “peopled space program” sounds as clunky as “a project to send people into space,” so there’s no way I’m using that, either. I need something here. Help me out.

Space, DeGroot feels, is better explored by robots, and any journey made to the moon, other planets, or the stars is just a stunt, devoid of any greater meaning at all. I’m not going to claim he’s wrong about the robots. I think it’s way cool to send robots into space because, you know, robots! But he’s a tad bit depressing when it comes to expressing his thoughts on personal space exploration (okay, that sounds stupid, too; I’m not using that either), which he does incessantly, the message being that it’s pointless, worthless, and not a little egotistic.

I’m on his side when he argues it costs way too much, but I’m pretty sure it’ll always cost way too much. I don’t see a way of cutting back unless and until people start building space ships in space so they can cut back on the commute up out of Earth’s gravity well, a part that adds quite a lot of expense. But they’ll always have to go back to get food, water and air, so it’s a modest savings.

But I’m not entirely with him when he says it’s pointless, far too dangerous and, when it comes down to it, little more than a stunt performed only to make people look good. All of that describes parachuting off the edge of a cliff, and yet people seem to be doing more of that, not less. It’s not that I think Nasa ought to fire up the rockets and start shooting guys off to the moon again, but people are going to go into space. There are a bunch of them in orbit right now, and they’ll keep going, so obviously it’s worth something to somebody. It’s worth something to me; I’d go in a second if I had twenty million dollars in spare change.

Still and all, Dark Side of the Moon was a great read, even if only to have read a book that wasn’t all gung-ho or gaga about rockets. But it was also worth it to read quite a few moonshot stories I hadn’t read before. Recommended.

Dark Side of the Moon | 10:30 pm CDT
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Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

I finished off the last of the books I’ve been reading this month:

Of A Fire On The Moon

I’ve never read anything by Norman Mailer before. This is one hell of a way to start.

I’ve picked up Of A Fire On The Moon at least twice, once when I was in high school and again when I was in college, but I wasn’t ready for Norman Mailer then; I’m not sure I was ready this time, but his novelization of the Apollo 11 moon landing has become part of the canon of moon landing lore, so it became a part of my permanent collection. When I got to feeling as though I needed another infusion of moon lore, I cast my eye on my books to be read, thinking, I need something that puts a different slant on the story this time, and man, I got it.

Mailer inserted himself into the story, called himself Aquarius, and tried to write about it as if he could somehow render it more dramatic than it already was. The astronauts and the technicians at Nasa bugged the hell out of him with their teamwork mentality and their inability to speak in anything but dry, clipped technospeak, but they were engineers, all of them, and so focused on their goal that most of them slept, when they slept at all, on cots in their offices and breakfasted on coffee and cigarettes. Of course their words were dry and clipped.

Mailer wanted them to be poets or, at least, a bit more lyrical. More like him, I would guess. If men were going to all the trouble to walk on the moon, he wanted them to be able to bring that experience back to the people they kept insisting they were doing it all for, the People of Earth, not at all an unreasonable request, but not possible in that day and age when they had to cobble together a lander that was so technologically complicated it had to be flown by not one, but two total engineering geeks. Poetry was not their strong suit.

I didn’t care much to read the details of Mailer’s life, inserted into the frame of the story, and the age of Aquarius stuff didn’t do much for me in setting the tumultuous stage the rest of the nation was playing on. It was distracting and seemed dated: When he’s not describing the moon landing, Mailer’s descriptions of his mayoral race or his partying seems to drag on like the babble of a self-absorbed beatnik, banging on bongo drums in a run-down coffee house.

Still and all, it was indeed a fresh perspective on one of the grandest stories of our country.

Pattern Recognition

I’ve been reading the stories of William Gibson ever since I read, then re-read, then re-re-read Johnny Mnemonic in the pages of Omni Magazine back in 1981 (I still have the issue, deeply buried somewhere in the archives here at Drivel HQ). His style reminded me of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a tattered copy of which I kept in a jacket pocket and read snatches from as compulsively as you’d pick at a scab, (I meant that to be a compliment. I hope he’d take it that way) and did the same with Gibson, too, after I discovered him.

Gibson’s prose combines stream of thought with a relentless hyperawareness of his surroundings, but with an artist’s control so that his observations don’t come tumbling out like the cataracts of a class five whitewater river. The result is a body of work that describes the world around his characters with the same attention he gives to their thoughts, motives and appearance. Everything in Gibson’s stories comes alive.

The Greatest Show On Earth

Richard Dawkins has a way of explaining things that seems to piss a lot of people off. Although I’m not in that camp of people, I can see why. He writes out most thoughts with such finality that they sound almost as if he’s issuing decrees from on high. That may be his purpose, now that I think of it, to put him in the same league with the anti-evolutionists he argues against.

For quite a while I avoided books like this, thinking, What’s the point? It doesn’t change the mind of anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution. But that doesn’t appear to be the point of this book. It’s more to the point of filling in the gaps in my own knowledge of evolution, and strengthening knowledge is never a bad thing, whether you’re for or against a topic as contentious as this one.

Books! | 10:12 am CDT
Category: books, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Saturday, August 7th, 2010

image of book shelves

I don’t know how many books we have. I wouldn’t be able to give you even a ball park figure. Could be hundreds, could be thousands, I have no way of knowing, because most of them are doubled up in the garage-sale book shelves we’ve collected over the years, and a significant number are still crammed into boxes, waiting for the day of liberation when we have enough shelf space to bring them out in the open air. It could happen. Not sure when; I’m a little vague on the details of that, too.

Although I planned to knock together a proper book case to stash some of the books in, I got to thinking, as I was looking over the lumber on sale at the local do-it-yourself store, that I could rig up something more like a multi-media organization and display center than a piddling book case. Besides needing a place to set our books, I also need shelf space for my ever-growing neato typewriter collection, as well as a rack to hold the stereo components I’ve cobbled together and a nearby shelf for the LP phono albums I keep finding at the thrift store. Aaron Copeland’s Grand Canyon Suite for a buck! Nat King Cole’s Greatest hits for a buck and a quarter! I couldn’t leave them there, could I?

Obviously all these considerations called for a shelving system, nay, a structure that would be a bit more suitable to the various needs of each different tenant. Connecting all the wires of the stereo components in a typical book case, for instance, sucks. You can’t get at the back of the components, which are all in the dark, unless you give each component a quarter-turn that leaves half of it hanging over the edge of the shelf, so you have to nervously hang on to it while you’re plugging things in. Then you have to try to quarter-turn it back while simultaneously tucking all those wires in. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to be able to fit all the components into a single shelf. When you have to poke holes through the back of the book case and run wires from one shelf to another, you might as well do a couple shots before you even begin and just keep drinking to dull the pain.

A mere book case, being just eight to ten inches deep, won’t hold a typewriter, either. I’d need a shelf at least sixteen inches deep, and made of wood stout enough to bear the thirty-pound weight of a 1929 Underwood upright. Particle board doesn’t cut it for a job like that.

With all these considerations running through my head, I selected a car load of lumber that might have given the impression I was remodeling a closet rather than building a place to keep our books and record collection: a heap of three-quarter inch plywood and two by four studs that came to a grand total of forty-six bucks, much less than the eighty or so I would have needed to build a proper book case. I was well chuffed about that.

Assembly took all freaking day. It wasn’t hard, it’s just that I wanted to take my time and make sure it got done right the first time. After clamping all the two by fours together I carefully measured out the grooves that would hold the shelves, then cut them out with a router, one-quarter inch on each pass. Took two hours, much longer than I thought it would, but that’s largely because I don’t use a router much so the widest blade I have is a quarter-incher. When I go shopping for more lumber next week I’m going to see if there isn’t a router blade that will hack out a three-quarter inch dado on one pass. There has to be, right? If there isn’t, don’t tell me.

Hacking the plywood into shelf-sized pieces took only twenty minutes or so because I have a table saw and it’s awesome. I’m literally awed by it, and maybe just a little scared yet. I still count my fingers after each pass, for instance, but that doesn’t make any less awesome.

Then came assembly. I hadn’t quite worked out how I was going to do this. Most of it ended up coming together on a wing and a prayer.

The first set of uprights, on the far left, was easy: Using a beam level I made sure they were straight up and down, and then I fixed them in place.

The second set of uprights, in the middle, was a little harder. In theory I knew exactly how far they should have been from the first uprights and should have been able to place them using a tape measure and a plumb bob. I don’t have a plumb bob, so I cobbled it together by sticking the top shelf and the bottom shelf into the slots on the first uprights, slapping the second pair of uprights against them, and screwing things together to see if that would work. For some reason that I’m not completely aware of, it did. The rest of the shelves slid into place deceptively easy and I was inordinately pleased with myself. That was the calm before the storm.

I tried to put the third pair of uprights, on the right-hand side, in place using the same method. The moment I stepped back to it up, everything fell apart. I tried again and got a little further along, but it fell apart again. When I finally got the top and bottom shelf fixed in place between the uprights, I could clearly see they were leaning forward further than a drunk taking a leak at a urinal. I took everything apart, lined it up again and, while I was fitting the bottom shelf into place, the top shelf fell out and tried to give me a concussion.

Eventually I worked out a sequence that would let me put all the shelves in the slots except one. I tried every way I could think of to get that sucker in there, even shaved the edge down a bit with a chisel, and it came really close to sliding into place where it should have gone … right before everything fell apart again.

At that point I should have started drinking vodka from a beer bong, but I had to shower and pick up My Darling B from work.

After supper it all went together rather easily. I don’t know what I did differently. I guess because I’d had that chance to walk away and not think about it for a while, my head was clear enough to get through the sequence without making mistakes. Not that I recall making mistakes before that, I just seemed to be having rotten luck lining everything up. It all went so much more smoothly after supper, though, that it was almost magical.

If I can find the time to put a few more of these together I’ll not only have a place to put all the books, we may also finally know the answer to the question Just how many books do we have in our possession?

Shelf-Improvement | 9:20 pm CDT
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Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Let the four-day weekend begin!

Oh, wait … I’m unemployed, so it’s really more like an indefinite weekend.

Well, whatever.

I applied for unemployment first thing yesterday morning … or rather, it was first thing after doinking around on the internet for an hour, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it until after nine o’clock, which is a really stupid reason for waiting until nine o’clock when you factor in that I applied on-line. You can do anything on the internet these days!

So at nine-thirty promptly …

What? Okay, so I doinked around a little longer than I said I would. It’s the internet! It’s not my fault! The internet forces us all to think non-linearly! Our minds are being scrambled by the internet! I couldn’t help it! You know it’s true! Just look it up! On the internet!

Besides, there was this killer John Stewart video I had to watch before I did anything else, such as provide for my family.

Anyway, after a quick google search and a couple of mouse clicks, my application for unemployment benefits was complete. Took me all of five minutes. Easy-peasy.

What did I do with the rest of my day? Oh, not much. It being my first officially unemployed day, I decided to celebrate with brunch at Lazy Jane’s, so I tucked a book into my backpack, jumped on my trusty Trek bicycle and rode into town. It’s about four or five miles from Our Humble O’Bode to our favorite Willy Street restaurant, so I worked up just enough of an appetite to want their half-sandwich and soup special.

That and a bottomless cup of coffee made me want to hang around just long enough to read through a couple of chapters of A Woman In Berlin, the book that’s on the arm of my easy chair this week. It’s a cheery little tale about the Russian liberation of Berlin in the final days of World War Two, as recorded in the diary of a journalist who was gang-raped by just about every Russian soldier who marched through her neighborhood. I’d have to recommend it because it’s so well-written, but I’d also have to include the warning that it’ll make you want to drink yourself unconscious. Enjoy!

image of shadow box

After a few good, deep burps loud enough to rattle the windows of passing cars, and a long, leisurely ride home (can’t exactly sprint on a full stomach), I spent the rest of the afternoon piddling around in our basement work shop trying to put my shadow box back together. I didn’t get a gold watch when I retired, but they did give me a going-away ceremony and a shadow box filled with medals (yes, mine) and a folded flag. Pretty nice, but they mounted all the little bits of bling with some kind of goop that wasn’t quite sticky enough to hold everything in place for very long. Five years later, all the medals and collar brass were lying in a sticky pile at the bottom of the box. (Senco members, take note.)

I made a few changes. Not that I didn’t like the original shadow box, but I wanted to include some of the patches I kept as mementos of the places I was stationed. I also wanted to arrange the ribbons, badges and name tag the way they usually appear over the pocket of a blue uniform jacket, and I wanted to hang my dog tags in there, too. So I pretty much changed it completely, okay, that’s true, but it was a great shadow box in the first place, honestly. I loved it and wouldn’t have changed it at all if it hadn’t fallen apart.

I made just one other teeny-weeny little change and that was changing the fabric on the backboard. It used to be a single piece of blue felt. I thought the patches and the dog tags would look a little out of place against that background, so I split it in half. On the left, I used a panel of woodland camouflage fabric I cut out of the back of an old BDU shirt I still had hanging in the closet. On the right, I replaced the blue felt with a panel of Air Force blue fabric cut from an old polyester Class-A jacket that I would never ever wear again in a million years, not because I’m anti-support-our-troops but because the polyester jacket sucked great big unlubricated bowling balls. I’ve still got my poly-wool jacket with all the ribbons and bling attached, so if I had to suit up again, I could wear that. Heaven help us all if Uncle Sam is ever desperate enough to ask me to suit up again.

To make sure the little bits and bobs didn’t fall off the backboard again, I hot-glued the shit out of every single thing in there. Hot glue two things together and they stay together. Gravity as a force is lame-o compared to hot glue. I hot-glued the fabric to the backboard, then I hot-glued the patches and ribbons, badges and other bling to the fabric. Hurricane Katrina could not tear this thing apart now.

The only thing left is to figure out where to mount it. There’s precious little wall space in my basement lair, at least for right now. I want to re-arrange things down there anyway, so maybe this is the time. See, this is how little things, like fixing up a busted shadow box, turn into big things, like rearranging my basement lair. I’ll probably still be feeling the aftershocks of this project twelve months from now.

The rest of the evening was pretty typical: Pick up My Darling B from work, sit down to a pleasant dinner, then hit the floorboards for a dance lesson that I had a hard time absorbing for some reason, probably because I didn’t do much all day and was almost too relaxed.

Let The Unemployment Begin! | 9:32 am CDT
Category: adventures in unemployment, bicycling, books, coffee, daily drivel, dance, entertainment, food & drink, hobby, My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, play, restaurants, work | Tags: ,
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Friday, June 25th, 2010

image of Martian tripod

I finally finished The Great Influenza, a history of the Spanish influenza pandemic. Very cheery book. Millions died, nobody quite got the hang of a vaccination, and the message throughout the book was “The next pandemic is on the way!” You should read it.

Back home, I found a copy of The Right Stuff while I was fishing The Great Influenza out of my backpack. I’d been reading The Right Stuff up until I found The Great Influenza at the thrift store and made the mistake of opening it up to read the first few pages, see if it was any good. It was, so The Right Stuff got put aside, the last ten chapters unread.

Until yesterday. What a great book. Finished it off over my lunch hour. So for right now I’m between books and poking through the thickest volumes on our shelves for the next tome to attack. But I needed something light and fun before bedtime last night, so I picked up H.G. Wells’s The War Of The Worlds and got stuck on the first page, reading the opening paragraphs over and over. It’s like poetry:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.

Ex Libris | 8:05 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play
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Saturday, April 24th, 2010

On this misty, crappy, cold day we declined to make the usual weekly circuit of the farmer’s market, so instead My Darling B offered to take me to Plaka Taverna for brunch.

Plaka used to be Cleveland’s Diner, one of our favorite places to get breakfast on a Sunday, and they still serve what they call “the traditional Cleveland’s Diner breakfast,” so I took her up on it without thinking twice.

My favorite breakfast is The Deuce: two scrambled eggs, bacon, and a couple buttermilk pancakes. B’s favorite is the sausage and egg sandwich.

We still made our customary stop on Willy Street on the way home, B to shop at the co-op and me to check out the book store at Saint Vinnie’s where I found a copy of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, a cracking good thought experiment.

Then it was home to … yard work! Even though everything outside was wet, I still trooped into the front yard to salvage as much as I could from the cedar tree I cut down last month. I piled the branches up and the curb and had hopes that I would be able to run it all through the chipper by now, but no luck there. Instead, I cut off all the branches I thought I could grind into useful mulch and stacked them in the back yard where the city crew wouldn’t haul them away next week.

While I was peeling back the layers of cedar boughs I found one of the bunnies that had been nesting in our planter. Curled up in a tight little furry ball, he seemed more than a little scared and not sure what to do after I exposed him to the elements, so I took a break to give him time to find a new hidey hole, which he must have done because he wasn’t there when I went back to work a half-hour later.

The only other thing I did that counts as getting anything done was a couple loads of laundry, and replace the outdoor electrical outlet in the back yard, which was a plain old socket. I’d been worrying about that ever since I read an article in a handyman magazine that said it really should be a GFCI outlet, giving me nightmares of My Darling B electrocuted by her electric tiller. Maybe I’ll get some sleep now.

that was the day that was | 5:49 pm CDT
Category: books, daily drivel, entertainment, farmer's market, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, Our Humble O'Bode, play, restaurants, yard work | Tags:
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Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

If you like to read fiction but you’ve never read science fiction because of the geek factor, or you’ve tried but you found it too technical or fantastic, you ought to give Ursula Le Guin’s work a try before you give up on the genre entirely. She doesn’t write just science fiction; she’s well-known for her work of fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea, but in the science fiction genre her story-telling ability is exceeded only by her success in bringing memorable characters to life.

You could dive into one of her full-length novels, but a short story would probably be the best way to start, I think. Pick up a copy of The Compass Rose and thumb through the stories until a title or a phrase catches your eye, or start at the beginning and plow your way through to the end in one sitting, as my oldest son did when he found it on the bookshelf. My favorite, “The Pathways of Desire,” traces the origins of the universe back to the desires everyone shares. This is not conventional science fiction.

My favorite novel — not asserting that it’s her best, just my favorite — would have to be The Left Hand of Darkness, a story I read again and again not for the science or the fantasy aspects but because the friendship between the two main characters, a love story, really, rises up off the pages and grabs me by the heart. When Ai and Harth meet they are hardly friendly, a coolness that grows into active dislike, but they have a common interest that brings them to trust one another, and from that trust their friendship grows. It’s a story I think anyone could relate to.

Although I used to re-read her books regularly, I haven’t picked one up in years until I read an interview in The Oregonian via their web site, OregonLive.com in which she candidly admits, with a catch in her voice, she doesn’t seem to have any more stories to tell. Her last book, Lavinia, was released in late 2008 and Le Guin says her muse has not brought her a story since then. A story like that should set off alarm bells, but no. What she’s brought us is quite a treasure, and maybe her muse is only napping after all.

LeGuin | 8:20 am CDT
Category: books, entertainment, play
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