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 CST
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 CST
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 CST
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 CST
Category: books, entertainment, play
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Friday, January 29th, 2010

I’ve been listening to misty-eyed Salinger fans sobbing about what an All-American Novel Catcher In The Rye was and feeling more than awkward about my guilty little secret: It’s not my favorite Salinger novel.

It’s good and all, but honestly I thought Salinger was a much better short-story writer than a novelist. And the only reason I say that is not that I have some kind of cutting insight or I hold the all-seeing knowledge of what makes a good short-story writer versus a novelist. It’s simply that I like his short stories better. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more delightful story than A Young Girl in 1941 With No Waist At All.

And that’s as may be, but as for his novels (although probably it should be considered a novela) I just love Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters. I read a review of it in The New York Times today, because everyone’s venting their opinions about Salinger this week, that was none too kind, and I had to wonder how closely he’d read it. Or how many times. I don’t think you can appreciate Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters until you’ve read it at least a half-dozen times, and you shouldn’t be writing a review of it for any newspaper, and especially not The New York Times, until you’ve taught a class on it. Or maybe I’ve just gone over the line. Yes, I see I have.

Obviously I haven’t taught a class on it or I would be able to pin down just why I like it so much. I love it mostly for Buddy Glass, the person I most wanted to grow up to be, a hermetic writer living in the woods with no phone, penning novels using a fountain pen and occasionally emerging to teach humanities at a local university.

And I loved it for the rest of the characters, too. Outrageous caricatures that they were, I just loved them. As much as everyone mentions the tiny top-hatted man, I have no idea what he’s supposed to be in the story. I love him but he’s a mystery to me. My favorite character, after Buddy, is the loud-mouthed Matron who dominates the dialog. Every time I meet someone like that, and goodness there are an awful lot of people like her, aren’t there, my imagination sucks me into a limousine with no air conditioning stuck in traffic on a New York street, and I blank out on everything else but the hell of what it would be like to spend an afternoon trapped like that.

Oh, I can see I’ll be up half the night reading it now. But that’s all right, it’s Friday. I can take a break from my must-finish book and re-read a little Salinger tonight.

Salinger | 8:47 am CST
Category: books, entertainment, play
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Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Our regular Saturday stop at St Vincent de Paul’s thrift store yielded only a few treasures this week. My Darling B didn’t find one old platter or kitchen gadget that caught her fancy. I, on the other hand, found a little treasure called The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Space.

I’ve got so many books about manned space exploration at this point that B makes fun of me whenever we go to the thrift store. If I’ve got an armload of books and one or more is about the space program she acts shocked, as if she didn’t expect that, and if none of them were written by or about astronauts, well, she acts shocked again. I can’t win for losing.

I had to take this one home because it’s big and thick as a tombstone and packed with iconic photos of spaceflight through the years. It was the photos I was after most of all.

But what always gets me about this book and others like it is that they never answer the one question that everyone asks sooner or later, the one that the congressional intern blurted to Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13: How do you go to the bathroom in space? Looking through this and other so-called encyclopedias, you would think they didn’t. There isn’t a toilet to be seen anywhere.

And that’s because, until the space shuttle, there weren’t any. The first astronauts were in space for such a short time (Alan Shepard went suborbital, lobbed like a cannonball for a trip of just fifteen minutes, and John Glenn was in orbit just a few hours) that they just peed in their suits if they had to go. Later, when they were in orbit for days, there wasn’t enough room in the spacecraft to sneeze, much less take care of hygiene, so they wore absorbent underpants – diapers, essentially – in case they really had to go. Most of the astronauts tried their damndest not to use them, for obvious reasons.

It takes three days to travel to the moon, though, even when you’re hustling along at a speed faster than a rifle bullet. Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface just eleven hours, but later missions lingered on the moon for days, so they had to finally give some consideration to The Big Question. And the makers of Apollo 13 half-answered it: The Apollo capsule had a “relief tube” that would vacuum liquid waste away with the flick of a valve. One of the details they omitted, though was that they had to be very careful when they opened the valve, lest delicate equipment get sucked away, too. The vacuum of space is relentlessly brutal.

But not even Ron Howard wanted to hint at the answer, How do you go Number Two? Because it’s kind of funny and it’s kind of … not. There’s no way to poop in a pot because, as the astronauts loved to demonstrate, everything floats in space. Who hasn’t seen them squirting food around and snatching it out of the air with their mouths? Well, what goes in must come out, and it still floats then, too, and obviously nobody wants to go chasing that around the cockpit.

What they came up with was a plastic baggie that had a brim around the opening, so it sort of looked like an old man’s hat. The brim had an adhesive strip to stick the thing to their butts and keep it from floating away while they were doing dookie, which probably sounded like a great idea to the guys who designed it. They obviously didn’t have hairy butts. Using one of these, and then trying to clean up after, was such a miserable experience that, again, astronauts tried as hard as they could not to use them.

Most people know that the space shuttle has a toilet. Finally, space travel had the answer to The Big Question. What a lot of people don’t know is that astronauts are specially trained to use it because it’s critically important that they sit with their cheeks snug against the seat, and that they sit in the middle of the seat.

The first part is not so difficult: The toilet has a couple padded swing arms to hold down a pooping astronaut. His butt has to be firmly kissing the seat because the toilet sucks air down past the astronaut’s thighs to keep doo-doo moving in a southerly direction, and a snug fit ensures a brisk flow of air.

To make sure the Merry Little Breezes will carry away every little turdlette, though, an astronaut must sit squarely in the middle of the seat. This is critically important: The point of emission must be centered pretty much exactly in the middle of the opening of the toilet.

Not too many people know when their exhaust pipe is centered precisely over the toilet bowl, because they don’t have to, but astronauts do. To make sure they do (I really love this part), Nasa built a training toilet. It has a video camera pointing up from the bottom at the underside of the seat. I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.

In toilet training, the astronaut drops trou, plants his fundament on the seat and then, watching the image of his bare bupkis on a monitor, his very own hairy butthole, he walks his cheeks around on the seat until he manages to center his anus on the crosshairs that Nasa paid a technician to tape across the screen.

I don’t know how many times they practice this or if they’re graded, and I’ve never heard of anyone washing out of the astronaut corps for failing toilet training. If I had to guess, I’d say they run through it once, maybe twice at the very most. A guy can be expected to endure only so much of that kind of indignity.

To my knowledge, the toilet on the shuttle does not have a camera.

the final frontier | 2:02 pm CST
Category: books, entertainment, play, random idiocy
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