Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Long time gone

It's been a little bit quiet in these parts recently. It was not a deliberate decision but now, trying to get back into it seems hard without acknowledging the 10 days of silence that have elapsed. Truth be told, I haven't felt much like writing. It's kind of as simple as that - nothing dramatic. It really was a simple case of I wasn't in the mood to write. I don't know that I am in the mood now, but here I am anyway.

A quick update to those of you that kept stopping by and/or wondered why their RSS feed had not been bold for so long.

1) I've met twice with a personal trainer at the gym. She's very good and a good fit for me. She's given me three different cardio workouts to do and it's really important that I get in each one at least once a week. We've been doing a lot of work with strength training (which was what I really needed her help on) and today, she worked me hard. But I feel like I'm getting a good handle on what I need to do. It's interesting to match the exercise with the muscle group, even though I famously got a D on the muscle test in my college anatomy class so it's amazing I know anything at all about muscles. It feels good to be active again and to be doing something positive for my physical health. I spend a lot of time trying to be mentally healthy because my past struggles with anxiety and depression have always seemed to be more important. Taking time out to work on my physical health has been just as rewarding and also helps with the other stuff too. I'm not naive enough to think that I'll always love to go exercise or go to the gym, but hey, it's a start.

2) I'm up to 27 books so far in my 2011 book challenge. I am not trying to read a set number of books, although my current goal on Goodreads is 40. I upped it from 30 when it became quite clear that I was going to blow past 30 around midyear. That said, it's really important that the next book I read be a good one. I've read two dogs in a row now and reading bad books makes me feel like I'm back in high school trying to read The Grapes of Wrath in May. I'm currently beta-reading Heidi's latest book and it's definitely breaking the bad book run - I'm always amazed by the fact that the woman I married has such a way with the written word. I'm always kind of like "wow - you wrote this?" even though duh, yeah, she did. I'll be blogging about my latest disappointing book (Robopocalypse) probably sometime this week.

3) I got the yard mowed tonight but what made tonight extra special was I got out my brand new weed whacker that I got for my birthday this year. There are parts of the yard that I just can't reach with the mower and, finally tired of just ignoring it, I asked my dad if he would buy me one for my birthday. Never one to pass up an opportunity to bequeath home improvement items, he found one that he liked and sure enough, I got it for my birthday. So after a little bit of work tonight, the yard looks better than it has since last October when, oddly enough, my dad was here to help me with the yard. I've also found that since I've been exercising, mowing the yard isn't nearly as big of a deal as it used to be. Positive effects all around.

It's not a terribly exciting life I lead, but exciting is overrated. Thank you to those who stopped by looking for updates, only to find none. I will try not to repeat that, but I'm not promising anything.

For now, let's have some Dixie Chicks.

Friday, June 17, 2011

It didn't make a sound

We had a doozy of a storm blow through on Monday around noon. Because I work in a windowless room, I had no idea that it even happened until it was over. Heidi was out and about with Marie Sexton during it, but when I asked her about it, she didn't really remember anything spectacular. Anna was at her two-week long class at the middle school (NOT summer school, I'm sure she would point out.) So no one was home.

The other night, our neighbor came by and mentioned to us that it must have been a heck of a storm. I asked her if she lost anything and her reply was no, nothing but the branch on your maple tree. WHAT? I followed her out to her back yard and, sure enough, this was the scene that greeted me.

While we marveled at the fact that it miraculously missed her house, I was faced with the fact that yes, it was my responsibility to clean it up. I cannot be trusted with a chain saw, so I did what I always do. I called my dad. So in a few hours, he'll be on his way over with a chain saw and we'll get that sucker chopped up.

I'm still kind of amazed that it took someone pointing out to me that we'd just lost a major chunk of tree. I chalk it up to life being so busy that I (naturally) haven't mowed the yard in about 10 days and so I've really had no reason to go out back. Also, between her yard and ours is a large row of bushes about 6-8 feet tall, so our view of her backyard is blocked.

A little bit embarrassing, but hey, what's life without something to shock you out of your complacency every now and then. But clearly, if a branch falls in my yard and no one's around, it doesn't make a sound.

A few more pictures - my dad asked me on the phone the other night if I could drag it out of her yard. Um, not without the help of a superhero.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bones of the Earth

When I picked up Michael Swanwick's novel Bones of the Earth from the library, my wife asked me what it was about. I said "it's about time travel! and dinosaurs!" To this, her reply was "...And? What's the hook?" She didn't seem to get that time travel and dinosaurs WAS the hook. What else do you need? You have time travel granted to scientists so that they can go back in time to the Mesozoic and see real living and breathing dinosaurs. This, by itself, is a can't-fail set up. Throw in a dash of atheism vs. creationism and you're off and running. Seriously, you can't screw this up.

Somehow, Swanwick screwed it up. Not just a little, but a LOT.

There are a lot of things wrong with this book. There are too many characters that aren't fleshed out well enough to differentiate them from other characters. There's the constant appearing of characters "future selves" in the present to mess with your head. The amazing resistance to the idea of "keep it simple, stupid" just astounded me. An event that could be told in a straight forward manner was always told as if there were sixteen different angles from which to approach it. Sure, there's some cool dinosaur stuff, especially in the last third of the book and for that I'm thankful that I persevered even after the "throw the book across the room" moment that was the orgy.

Yeah, they lost me at the orgy. A Maastrichtian Age orgy - with people, not dinosaurs just in case you were confused, which I was through quite a bit of this book. Plot lines are started and then forgotten, only to be quickly wrapped up as if Swanwick suddenly remembered that he had started an arc way back on page 78 and now here we are 10 pages from the end of the book and it's still unresolved. The characters are not particularly likeable, especially Gertrude Salley, a conniving and ruthless paleontologist who seems to enjoy deliberately messing with the time-space continuum, to the detriment of her fellow scientists. The fact that I could not see her as anything other than Sue Sylvester from Glee made her character simultaneously more disturbing and more comical.

The book is decidedly less-than-kind to religious fundamentalists generally and creationists specifically. A crucial event that would have lent credence to creationists' theories of the origin of the species is dangled in front of us early in the book and then never mentioned again. A plot involving domestic terrorism on the part of the creationists dominates the first half of the novel and forces the events of the second half - including the orgy.

As I mentioned, the dinosaurs they see are pretty cool. Despite its cheesiness, I do love the Jurassic Park trilogy of movies. Again, it's lifelike dinosaurs on the screen, how can you go completely wrong? Maybe it's just me, but hot dinosaur action does not translate as well in the written word as it does in CGI on the movie screen. Still, they posit some interesting theories on dino communication and behavior. Not being a paleontologist, I have no idea if any of it holds any water.

But back to this orgy thing. Stranded in the Maastrichtian Age by the creationist-inspired act of terrorism, the group of scientists and graduate students initially split into two camps. Much infighting and bickering ensues. What brings them back together? Spontaneous group sex. Yep, believe it. I know when I was reading it, I really couldn't believe it. It's not that I'm prudish and can't stand reading sex (far from it) but it seemed so out of place and very much like we were indulging the author's personal fantasies rather than furthering the plot of the book. And if there's any one thing I've learned from reading Heidi's m/m books, the sex always has to further the plot.

I can't really recommend Bones of the Earth- it's probably about a 2 and a half star book. Despite a promising start and a strong premise, the material was wasted and the story really didn't do it for me. I'd say you'd be better off reading Jurassic Park again or, better yet, go watch Jurassic Park 3. It's the best movie in the series because it's the one with the least to lose, had flying dinosaurs and most importantly did not star Jeff Goldblum.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Thermodynamics and fitness

It's no secret that I've been trying to increase my activity over the last few weeks. Before we left on vacation in May, we joined a gym here in town (see the post where I complained about the showers) and I've been pretty good about going. I know that I'm still in the honeymoon phase of it and at some point - read: any minute now - the bloom should fall off the rose and I'll find some excuse to not do it any longer. I'm pushing past that and I think that's as much of a success as anything.

When we joined, you got one free session with a personal trainer which Heidi and I both signed up for. She went yesterday morning and I went yesterday afternoon. In many ways, it was a bit of a let down because it felt a lot more like a sales pitch than anything else. I get that they have to make money - as I say, I don't work for free and neither should anyone else. But it was hard for me to believe that the person I talked to would be as interested in my personal fitness if they weren't trying to sell me a pack of personal training sessions costing in the hundreds of dollars. Still, she was very nice and listened and answered some of my nagging questions about the equipment, like how accurate are the heart rate monitors on the treadmills (quite accurate) and do you really burn more calories on an elliptical than a treadmill (no, the calories burned on an elliptical is not based on any type of formula and is more of a guess.)

Still, I can't shake the feeling that it really is something I should do, sales pitch or no sales pitch. There's so much I don't know about getting active, and there are so many things that I need to learn how to do to make sure that what I'm doing is what I need to be doing. Additionally, there's so many things that you can do that if you do wrong, you can end up really hurting yourself. I'm thinking mostly about strength training. My dad's showed me over and over again, but for some reason, it never sinks in. And I HAVE hurt myself using free weights in the past. Not terribly, mind you, but I really don't want to experience that again. It put me off any kind of physical activity for a year and it hurt like a motherfucker.

So for my birthday this year, I'm getting three sessions to start. The first thing I do will be to take a cardiovascular fitness test to see where I am right now. I know that I regularly get myself to maximum heart rate for my age and weight without much trouble - it's good to know I could pass a stress test if I took one - but I want to know what my baseline is. I know there are all sorts of ways to do cardio and that there's really no wrong way, but I really need help knowing what's best for me so that when I go on my own, I know what I'm doing and that I'm doing it right. The same thing goes double for weight training which I know I need to add in as well but am very nervous to do so. I am such a weakling! I'm very glad there's no sand in the gym for someone to come kick in my face.

But with the help of the personal trainer, at least to get started, I think I can really figure out what it is I need to do to maximize my cardiovascular fitness as well as throw off some of this pesky extra weight I've managed to put on since my metabolism downshifted somewhere in my mid 30s. I was at the pool the other day and as usual, was very self conscious about how I looked. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror in the locker room and decided that for a guy pushing 40 that is just now starting to get active, I don't look too bad. And just think of what I can do if I actually start working at it.

It reminds me of the thermodynamics and every systems tendency toward entropy and disorder unless energy is used to counteract it. And since I can tie fitness to thermodynamics, my geek cred is still intact.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Three worthy albums

Let me just say that 2011 has NOT been the year for new music that 2010 was. Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty out there worth listening to, but as far as album releases go, I haven't been all that inspired. Granted, last summer was a tough act to follow. The one-two punch of new Scissor Sisters and Kylie Minogue - and the fact that they actually delivered - started things off right. A handful of great singles from Marina & The Diamonds, Keane and Goldfrapp (among others) rounded out the edges.

I suppose it didn't help that the Stevie Nicks album was so anticlimactic. I keep thinking I'll go back to it and give it another try, but in so many places, it just doesn't sound like Stevie. Thankfully, there have been some album releases that have caught my attention. Here are three that are in heavy rotation right now.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor / Make A Scene
Let's get one thing out of the way - Sophie is not much of an album artist. Like Bananarama, I think of her more for memorable songs rather than albums. Yes, pretty much everything on Make A Scene sounds the same. Even though I've listened to it many times, I still have a hard time knowing what the song is without looking at my iPod. This, however, is not a bad thing when you make dance-pop music with as much reckless abandon as Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Even though she's one of those people that, when I'm listening to her, I find myself wondering "exactly HOW are you famous?" I don't really care.

This album doesn't deviate terribly from the formula that made Trip The Light Fantastic a damn fun listen back in 2006. Again, if it isn't broken, why fix it? I think the thing that endears me most to Sophie is her very pronounced British accent in her singing. It's not "Heartbreak Make Me A Dancer", it's "Heartbreak Make Me A DAHNCER." Any "-ance" word you can think of Sophie turns into an "-ahnce" word. Highlights for me are the previously mentioned "Heartbreak Make Me A Dancer", "Homewrecker", "Off & On", and "Not Giving Up On Love." She won't win any awards for variety, but for pure pop dance fun, you can't go wrong with Sophie.

Lady Gaga / Born This Way
The year's most hyped album was bound to disappoint, right? Well, it depends on your expectations. If you were expecting a masterpiece and piece of Very Important Work from Born This Way, then yes, you were probably disappointed. It's not your fault entirely though, because that's how Lady Gaga has been billing it since February. But if, instead, you were just expecting a very solid pop album, then your prayers were answered. Yes, the Gaga album is solid, with only a few throwaway tracks - and even some of those are growing on me. I initially liked the ubiquitous title track, and then really didn't like it very much. I've always kind of felt that the problem with "Born This Way" the song is its production. Too clunky, not sleek enough. It kind of broke under its own self-importance. Some of the remixes, the Grum remix in particular, took care of this little problem. "Judas" was kind of a misfire, but works better as the album track it probably should have stayed. But there are so many great pop songs on Born This Way. I'm not going to review it - many have done so much better than I ever could - but for me, the standout song is "Electric Chapel" in which Gaga channels Debbie Harry, the woman to whom all the female divas owe at least a small debt of gratitude. Other favorites include "Hair", "The Edge of Glory" (thumbs down from Heidi, though), and "Government Hooker." Even though Lady Gaga wanted it to change the world, it won't. But it is a great summer record.

Blondie / Panic of Girls
This was the most unexpected fantastic album so far this year. Panic of Girls has been gestating for over a year now. The cover art came out LAST summer. I figured that anything in the can that long has overcooked and won't be any good. It also doesn't help that I have only sort of liked the last two Blondie albums. No Exit was mostly good but befouled by a few really bad songs and I disliked more of The Curse of Blondie than I liked. Debbie's solo work has been equally uneven - 2007's Necessary Evil had some high points but was only okay in the end. So I was more than a little worried about Panic of Girls.

My worry was for nothing. Panic of Girls is easily Blondie's tightest and most focused record in ages. It's accessible pop but also has a touch of light reggae in it. Debbie, who is 66 freaking years old in a month, sounds just like she did in the late 70s and early 80s. Much like Dolly Parton, her voice has not aged a single bit. The first six songs are among Blondie's finest latter day work and for my money, there isn't really a dud track on the album. Not surprisingly, my favorite tracks on the album come from those first 6 tracks, with the best song on the album being "Love Doesn't Frighten Me." It's so fantastic when a band can come together and deliver an album like this, especially after so many missteps. It's especially reassuring because with Blondie and Debbie Harry (and so many of the artists that I like who are getting a bit long in the tooth), you never know when an album might be their last.

What we really need now is a new Madonna album. It's time for her to come roaring back and show everyone how it's done. But until then, I'm sure these three albums will get plenty of play this summer.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

A Land of Ash/Grants Pass

While I was on vacation last month, I finished off a couple of post-apocalyptic fiction anthologies. Even though it seems counterintuitive, post-apocalyptic fiction is really great fun to read when it's done right. I loved Stephen King's The Stand, but did not care one bit for Cormac McCarthy's The Road (the apocalypse was never so boring.) The two anthologies I read were A Land of Ash, which consists of stories told by survivors of the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera and Grants Pass, which found those immune to three super-plagues trying to figure out how to get to Grants Pass, Oregon based on the blog entry of a young girl who wrote "When the end of the world comes, meet me at Grants Pass."

The tag line for A Land of Ash reads: The Yellowstone Caldera has erupted once every 600,000 years. We’re 40,000 years overdue. It was famously (and expensively) done in Roland Emmerich's 2012, but if you believe the stories in this anthology, the movie would have been over after the eruption. All but one of the stories take place in the United States, which sees massive devastation from the ash-cloud that results from the eruption. As with most anthologies, the quality of the stories varies wildly, but there are some real keepers in there. "Shelter" tells a heartbreaking story of a father and daughter who survived the eruption inside their house. He has sealed up his house against the ash-cloud, only to see his defenses gradually breached. And in "Toward the Storm" a woman travels west toward Yellowstone, in contrast to the thousands who traveled toward the East coast of the U.S. to escape it. Her faith in God is what sustains her although that faith is about to be tested.

A Land of Ash was an incredibly quick read, and it's one I could see myself reading again. There were only a couple of dud stories and I find myself intrigued by the fact that these were all stories of regular people and how they would behave in the days and months after a massive volcanic eruption in North America.

Grants Pass was mentioned in several of the Goodreads reviews of A Land of Ash so I picked it up from the B&N Nook store for $4.95. As I mentioned previously, Grants Pass is the place in Oregon that everyone is trying to get to after a combination of Ebola, superflu and bubonic plague wipe out 99.99% of the human population. To add insult to injury, "the big one" finally hits southern California - as if global epidemics weren't bad enough. In stark contrast to A Land of Ash, most of the stories in Grants Pass were international. This gave the anthology a bit of a different flavor. It really did feel like a global apocalypse. The eruption of Yellowstone would have global ramifications, but it would have nothing on the bioterrorism that wiped out the world in Grants Pass. On the whole, I didn't enjoy this as much as A Land of Ash. In many ways, it reminded me of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books without any of the choosing. Many were chilling and scary - the scariest ones accenting the isolation that an end of the world scenario such as this would bring. But overall, I kind of felt like I was always waiting for "how are they going to work Grants Pass into this?" Sometimes it was convincing, other times it felt very shoehorned in. It also suffered from more proofreading errors than A Land of Ash which is always a pet peeve of mine. So it was a little bit more of a mixed bag than A Land of Ash. Still, it was worth the read because it too was a really fast read.

I think one of my favorite things about the rise of ebooks is that books like these are starting to see the light when they wouldn't have otherwise. I can't see established publishing houses taking chances on books like these, but they still deserve to be out there. I recommend them both to fans of PAF, but I definitely enjoyed A Land of Ash more.

A Land of Ash is FREE in the Kindle store, 99 cents in the B&N store.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Cher shirt

My mom and dad came over yesterday to help us get some belated spring cleaning done. We got the picnic table moved off the porch, the deck furniture down from the garage attic and various other odds and ends that have kind of needed doing for a while but we just haven't been able to muster up the ambition to do them. Every time my mom comes over, she always brings a bit of my past with her, and yesterday was certainly no exception.

In 1990, she, my brother and I all went to see Cher's Heart of Stone tour in Ames. I remember my dad was going to go but he had to teach night class or something, so that's how my brother got in on it. If you know anything about that tour at all, you'll know that it was a little bit of a let down. It was a concert full of cover songs with just a few of Cher's current songs, despite have two full albums to pull songs from. Sure she sang an Eagles song and a Gregg Allman song and a Doobie Brothers song, but why didn't she sing more CHER songs? Isn't that what we paid money for? Clearly, she learned her lesson as the Believe tour was very hit heavy and the only cover was a kick-ass version of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." It was so kick-ass she did it again on the Farewell Tour.

At any rate, my mom found this shirt that we must have bought at the show 21 years ago, and naturally, she brought it to me.

I'm not entirely sure what I'm going to do with a shirt with a 24" image of Cher on it (wear it to bed? Give it to Anna to use as a nightgown?) and then I decided, much like the Sticky & Sweet Tour shirt, if I can't wear a Cher tour shirt to Des Moines Pride, where the hell else can I wear it?

So if you stop by Heidi and Marie's booth the weekend of June 11th and 12th in downtown Des Moines, chances are you'll see me with a 2 foot image of Cher on my chest.