Monday, December 31, 2012

BC2012: Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner

I enjoyed Weiner's The Geography of Bliss, wherein he visited numerous countries in search of happiness, so I was excited to spot this book at Barnes & Noble in Green Bay, WI last June. Unfortunately, it was hardcover and I didn't feel like spending that much, so I took a picture of it with my cell phone as a reminder. In November I got an offer for 30% off one book at B&N, and I discovered that this had just been released in paperback.

This book is somewhat similar to The Geography of Bliss in that Weiner again visits different countries, but this time he is searching for a religion. This book offers a lot to both believers and non-believers (Weiner describes himself as a "confusionist") because religion and philosophy are so intertwined. Here are just a couple of the lines that made me stop and think for a moment:
A Franciscan friar says, "When in doubt, be thankful."
A Kabbalah teacher says, "The opposite of sadness is not happiness but clarity."
Weiner admits that he sampled only a tiny percentage of the world's religions, but I think depth is more interesting than breadth so that didn't bother me. His chapter on shamanism is noticeably weak compared to the others, however. He should have explored it more thoroughly or chosen a different religion entirely (I vote for Hinduism, easily the largest religion omitted from the book).

This book deserves a more lengthy review, but frankly it's 2013 already so I have to move on. I had to bend the rules to fit Man Seeks God into Book Challenge 2012; I finished it before midnight in Honolulu but not Chicago (I'm still going to backdate this post as I have with others at month-end--you didn't really think I cranked out all those book reviews between 11:30 and midnight, did you?). As I said before, I needed a better finish than Gilbert Gottfried!

NYE Killjoys

Just in time for New Year's Eve, a local news radio station reported today on the dangers of walking after drinking. This isn't news. Anyone who has ever consumed a large quantity of alcohol already knows that walking can be challenging and potentially dangerous. Isn't walking straight the most common--and therefore I presume the most difficult--field sobriety test administered by police officers when you get pulled over for drunk driving?

I am not one to let the killjoys get the best of me, though. This afternoon, purely in the name of science, I consumed a large quantity (I didn't measure, but it was a couple inches of the bottle) of Skyy citrus vodka. Then I went downtown for dinner. Walking to the train station was uneventful aside from an especially hearty "Happy New Year" wish to an older but attractive neighbor walking her dog. The vodka didn't really hit me until I got on the train. For a moment I pondered the likelihood of getting sick on board, but this concern was unfounded. Actually, my greater worry was falling asleep and missing my transfer stop. But when the time came, I successfully rose to my feet and stepped out of the train in a more-or-less straight line, though I may have swayed a bit while waiting for the next train.

After successfully boarding the train and riding to my destination, I sought the ease of the escalator out of the station as opposed to the coordination-requiring stairs. On the walk from the station to a restaurant, I was especially careful at intersections. I sure would look foolish getting run over while walking after drinking after making fun of a news report about walking after drinking. My bigger concern as someone who doesn't drink a lot very often was whether every single approaching pedestrian could recognize my intoxicated state. Not likely, I figured, unless I walked into a parking meter or puked on someone's boots. At the restaurant I waited for my table, eyes slightly glazed. Then I sat down and started sucking up Cokes (I'm too cheap to drink alcohol when I'm out). Slowly my sobriety returned and the New Year's Eve drunken walking experiment drew to a close.

Admittedly, my results were influenced by the report I had heard earlier as well as my awareness of being part of an experiment. My innate cautiousness is only slightly impaired by alcohol, so I suppose that makes walking around drunk a little less dangerous for me.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

BC2012: Rubber Balls and Liquor by Gilbert Gottfried

Wow, a book without a lengthy subtitle! How retro! I got this cheap in the waning days of the Borders bankruptcy. I read it out loud to my wife, who is a big fan of the celebrity roasts for which Gottfried is famous. Aside from being famous for general obnoxiousness, I guess. And being the voice of an insurance-pushing duck. Anyway, my wife was relieved when I told her I would not attempt to read in the author's grating voice.

I have to admit that I wasn't expecting a lot from this book, and it delivered. Parts are entertaining, parts are funny, parts are dumb, parts are boring, little is memorable. I wish he had written about more roasts than just Hugh Hefner's. I wish he had mentioned his appearances on USA cable late night, which is where I first became aware of him. But he did mention the only time I found him worthy of blogging about, when he was named The Unsexiest Man in the World!

So, I guess if you're a huge fan of Gottfried (is anyone?) then you'll like this book, but otherwise you can probably skip it. And you probably didn't need me to tell you that, either.

Now please excuse me. I have some reading to do because I don't want Book Challenge 2012 to end this way...

BC2012: Route 66 Still Kicks by Rick Antonson

In 1990 I drove old Route 66 out to Los Angeles in my first solo cross-country trip. I wrote a long essay/short book about that trip after I got home, and I hope to finally put it online in 2013. Perhaps it was in anticipation of publishing my own story that I picked up Route 66 Still Kicks: Driving America's Main Street at the Book Cellar last month.

This book is framed as a road trip travelogue of Antonson's drive on Route 66 with a friend, but he weaves many historical tales about the road into the narrative. I've read a lot of books about Route 66 over the past 20-odd years, and I am always amazed at how many new stories each writer finds there. Certain famous people are always mentioned, such as John Steinbeck, Bobby Troup, and Will Rogers, and Antonson somehow teases out new details about these legends and their connection to the old road (ditto for oft-noted places like Times Beach). But he also finds other stories along the way, such as the kidnapping of Olive Oatman and a grisly murder in a small Oklahoma town. And of course there are the characters they encounter in their own journey.

This is the second book I've read this year about a Canadian driving through America. The first, Breakfast at the Exit Cafe, left a sour taste in my mouth, perhaps in part because the authors were constantly reminding the reader that they were Canadian (as well as constantly reminding the reader that the U.S. once had slavery). This book is quite the opposite. I think Antonson's residence in Vancouver is only mentioned outside of the story (the "about the author" page and back cover blurb), and I don't think I ever learned his friend's nationality. Perhaps the author recognized that on a highway beloved and traveled by thousands of Europeans and Japanese every year, nationality is irrelevant.

I enjoyed this book even more than I expected and learned quite a bit, which is saying something for a topic I already knew a lot about. I still consider Michael Wallis' Route 66: The Mother Road to be the best book about the highway, an exceptional combination of rich storytelling and dazzling color photography (as well as the book that led to the route's revival), but Route 66 Still Kicks is one of the better runners-up.

Friday, December 28, 2012

This Scares The Hell Out Of Me

From the Chicago Tribune:
A man was crushed to death Thursday night in New York after a woman shoved him into the path of an oncoming subway train, the second time this month that a commuter was killed after being pushed onto the tracks.
This is one of those persistent fears I have, much like my fear of being hooked by a casting fisherman while bicycling through Busse Woods Forest Preserve (the bike path crosses several dams that are popular with fishermen). Like that fear, I hoped that my fear of being pushed onto the subway tracks--particularly by a random stranger--was unreasonable, perhaps a bit paranoid. Apparently not.*

Knowing New York, these two incidents will lead to a jackbooted crackdown on homeless and/or crazy people in subway stations by NYPD. Then liberals will protest to protect the rights of these mostly harmless folks. I'm not sure which side I'd be on, considering that I've been afraid of being pushed onto the tracks for quite some time.**

If this happened in Chicago, probably nothing would change except that I'd wait for the train with my back up against the subway station wall.


* I don't mean to make too much of this fear. It's not like it paralyzes me or anything, just that I try to be aware of whether anyone is behind me on the platform (always good to know if only for the safety of one's wallet) and especially vigilant if someone is. Actually, I'm way more scared of being hooked by a fisherman at Busse Woods. Especially on the ear.

** Incidentally, the fear has worsened a bit since I stopped commuting regularly. I'm not sure whether I'm at greater risk now or not. On the one hand, I used to stand on train platforms two to four times a day (depending on whether I transferred) where now at most it's a few times a week. On the other hand, I used to ride when the platforms were more crowded, meaning that if some random person got pushed onto the tracks, it was less likely to be me.

BC2012: It's All Too Much by Peter Walsh

Often I buy a book long before I decide to read it. This book was a different situation. I looked at it many times in 2010 (there was one copy in the clearance section of Borders in Schaumburg for months), but it never seemed like anything I wanted to read. Maybe I was tricked into picking it up over and over by the Beatle-esque title. Anyway, last month I saw it at Half Price Books for $2, flipped through it, and suddenly it seemed very relevant. The experience reminded me of the Tom Waits song "San Diego Serenade" which includes the line "I never heard the melody until I needed the song." You don't notice something until you really need it.

Loyal readers may recall that I read The Secret Lives of Hoarders by Matt Paxton six months ago. Out of nearly 120 books I've read this year, that is the one I would describe as "life-changing." I have devoted many hours and many garbage bags to the task of decluttering our house this year. But it's hard to stay committed and enthusiastic about a project for a long time, especially one so daunting and far-reaching. When I started reading It's All Too Much a few weeks ago, I hadn't made noticeable progress in six weeks. This book turned out to be the kick in the butt I needed to get back to work. I've been focusing on the attic since we're having some work done there soon, and I've been emptying out box after box of stuff, compacting nine boxes of junk into two boxes of things worth keeping.

While The Secret Lives of Hoarders is more of a "case study" book, It's All Too Much is more of a "how-to" guide. There is a certain stigma attached to hoarding, but this book seems oriented toward milder cases--"people with too much stuff" rather than "people with a debilitating mental illness." Walsh leads the reader through the decluttering process room by room, and then he offers advice to maintain balance in the home. My wife and I both need to change our  behavior if we are going to successfully manage this house.

Walsh stresses that the stuff isn't the real problem. There are almost always underlying emotional or psychological issues involved (though they may not be as severe as those of "hoarders"). I'm a little uneasy because I can't identify what those issues are in our case. I found something unsettling in one of the boxes in the attic, though: file folders for my business, ending in early 1998 when I moved out of my condo and eventually into our house (after a layover of a few months at my then-fiancĂ©e's apartment). There it was, proof that at one time I was extremely well-organized. My business records from 1998 to the present, on the other hand, were in piles and boxes. What happened? Did I just get lazy? I guess that's something I need to figure out in 2013.

He also believes that removing the clutter from your home can lead to a better life in all areas. It's as if you can't see how to improve your relationships, your career, or your body until you get the clutter out of the way.

Paxton's book was a great inspiration to me, but It's All Too Much is a more practical, tactical guide to dealing with clutter. I'd have a hard time recommending one over the other. If you're dealing with hoarding and/or clutter, you'll probably benefit from both.

Year-End Follow-Through

Finally, I can say there's something good about the I.R.S. If not for their deadlines, I'd have bags and boxes full of former clutter indefinitely. With December 31 rapidly approaching, I'm trying to get stuff delivered to the appropriate charities.

Today my wife helped me out. She was going to volunteer at Chicago Animal Care & Control, which is just a few blocks away from Working Bikes. I loaded the car with one old bike, one box, three big bags, and a couple of tires. I had been resisting the drive to the other side of town for months. She stopped by there, dropped off the stuff, and got a donation receipt. I figure it's about $400 worth including lots of new or gently used parts (notably suspension seatposts, saddles, and fenders) and assorted bags (not the Arkels). I know my Cannondale hybrid should have gone, too, but I'm not quite ready to part with it yet.

Next I have to finish boxing up and documenting a bunch of clothes and stuff for the Salvation Army or Goodwill. I need to drop off at least one carload by December 31.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Most Popular Christmas Gift

Based on my observations of drivers today, the most popular Christmas gift this year was lobotomies.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Have a CTA Holiday!

Today I got to ride for the first time in one of those new CTA traincars where all the seats face inward (they've been around for a while, but I've been lucky). It's like someone wondered "Hmm, how could we make public transportation more awkward and uncomfortable?"

They claim these new cars are better because they can accommodate more standees. But if their only objective is to increase capacity, why not just stack us in boxcars? Think of all that wasted space between riders' heads and the ceiling!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Appropriate Find

Going through the attic today, I found a Sammy Sosa doll. It was covered with dirt and mouse turds. That's pretty much how most Cubs fans feel about their former hero these days.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Media Fear Mongering

As most people around Chicago probably already know, two bank robbers escaped yesterday from the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago*. The triangular building with narrow slits for windows** should be familiar to anyone who has visited the Skydeck observation level of the Sears/Willis Tower.

One of the robbers is likely to have over $500,000 stashed somewhere***, so the escapees are probably planning to use that cash. They were sighted in Tinley Park, a southwest suburb where the guy with the cash lived. Here's where the fear mongering starts:
In the wake of the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Tinley Park officials notified local schools and dispatched police officers to school buildings closest to where the search was under way.
I know if I escaped from a prison and had $500K stashed somewhere, the first thing I'd do is go shoot up a school. Sometimes I think modern Americans are addicted to fear and paranoia. Anytime something bad happens, we remind ourselves of it over and over. It doesn't take a psychology degree to recognize how mentally unhealthy this is.

Truthfully, notifying the schools and sending officers there is probably a standard precautionary measure anyway. But if that is the case, the reporters had no business invoking "the deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn." The two situations have nothing in common.


* The obvious question is Why would the feds put a prison right in the middle of the nation's biggest transportation hub? Logically it's for the feds' convenience when trying people at the federal courthouse, though it also houses inmates serving short sentences. At least it's hard to break out, this being the second successful escape since it opened in 1975.

** The Tribune reporters describe it as hulking, which is absolutely the wrong word for the building unless maybe you're standing in the middle of the block with your nose six inches from the wall. If I were architect Harry Weese and still alive, I'd sue the bastards for defaming my design.

*** The Tribune article misses the mark here as well. It says
Banks could have as much as $500,000 stashed away, according to testimony at his trial. He stole a combined $589,000 in two robberies, but only about $80,000 had been recovered or accounted for through Banks' purchases, prosecutors said. 
The FBI called Banks one of the most prolific bank robbers in Chicago history, saying at the time of his arrest in 2008 that he was suspected in about 20 heists. However, he was charged in only two bank robberies and two attempted holdups. A jury convicted him on all counts last week.
It sounds to me like Banks could have a whole lot more than $500K depending on whether he did any of the 18 other robberies. The reporters are assuming that just because he wasn't charged, he didn't commit any of them. I know reporters use "innocent until proven guilty" language, but I believe this is a different context.

Monday, December 17, 2012

BC2012: As Good as Gold by Kathryn Bertine

I first saw this book at Borders in Wilmette, but I didn't want to pay the hardcover price. I looked for it throughout the bankruptcy sales last year, but I never saw it (apparently it sold out when the discounts were still only 20-40%). I finally came across an used copy at Barnes & Noble in Minnesota for only $6 last October. I was going to read it around the time of the Olympics this year, but my wife took it (and didn't read it). Last week I took it back.

Some ESPN editors were wondering how difficult it really is to make it into the Olympics so they made Bertine, a professional triathlete and writer, an offer she couldn't refuse: they covered her expenses for two years as she chased the dream of qualifying for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and wrote about it online, culminating in this book.

Bertine begins by trying a variety of sports. Though she is a triathlete, she is better suited to Ironmans, so she can't race competitively in the much shorter Olympic triathlon event. She attempts obscure (particularly in America) sports like pentathlon, team handball, and race walking. She discovers those sports require skills she doesn't have. Part of the problem is her age--a national team may be willing to invest in developing a gifted young athlete, but it's pretty much too late for someone over 30 to master the techniques and be competitive at an international level.

After checking out luge (it's a winter event, of course, but USA Luge challenges her after her ESPN editors belittle the sport) and rowing (which she had done successfully in college), she tries to leverage her triathlon skills in open water swimming and track cycling. Though those events aren't right for her, she learns that she might have an outside shot as a road cyclist. Thus begins her quest to go from Category 4 to the Olympics in too little time. She admirably advances to Category 2 within months so she can race the US championships, but she places in the middle of the field in both the time trial and road race.

Her US Olympic hopes snuffed out, she takes the advice of her ESPN editors and goes shopping for another country where she can get dual citizenship and compete. This draws harsh criticism from some people (including Amazon reviewers), and Bertine has her own misgivings about it, but she ultimately proceeds in the best way possible. Since many smaller nations don't have women's cycling programs, she commits to helping them get started in exchange for being able to compete under their flag. The Caribbean island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis accepts her offer, but time becomes her most formidable enemy.

I enjoyed reading As Good as Gold. Bertine gets a chance to pursue her dream, and she has the commitment and determination to overcome many obstacles. She introduces readers to sports that don't get much attention (can you name the five events in the modern pentathlon?) before finally settling into one that I am familiar with. I could have done without a few of her between-chapter "water breaks", but overall this book is a pleasing mixture of entertainment and inspiration.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

BC2012: Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth about the American Voter by Rick Shenkman

I'm not sure why I bought this book. I suppose I agreed with its premise, or maybe I recognized the author from another book of his that I enjoyed, Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History. I don't know why I chose to read it now either. I usually have a handful of books in a sort of "on deck circle" that I select from, plus another dozen or two that bubble up to the tops of my unread stacks (I sort through and prioritize my unread books regularly, even though it's a complete waste of time). This book was buried in the middle of a pile, and I just pulled it out on a whim and started reading.

This isn't a bad book, but it didn't really excite me. Like I said, I already agreed with its premise, and that tends to make for so-so reading. There are some good anecdotes, such as the one about Lesley Stahl reporting on how Reagan posed with people who were being hurt by his policies, giving the false impression that he was on their side. Someone from the Reagan White House called, but instead of complaining, they said they appreciated all the great images Stahl showed during her story, the bottom line being that people would remember only those positive images, not the negative words Stahl had said while showing them.

One thing I disagree with is Shenkman's assertion that local television news doesn't cover politics. That may be true for his experience in Seattle, but I can't imagine any Chicagoan would agree with that. Maybe we're just lucky, though I would guess that our politics are also more interesting.* I do agree that local TV news doesn't really give a clear picture of what has happened in the local community that day, but in Chicago's case the problem is skewed news values rather than the omission of political coverage. I still blame TV news for the negative impression I had of Chicago while growing up in the suburbs (i.e., a place where poor people live and everybody gets killed).

If you need convincing that American voters are flawed in many ways, this book will probably do the trick. But if you're a cynical bastard like me who is already fairly certain of being surrounded by idiots, you can probably pass on this one.


* Come on, just last month we reelected a state representative who had been indicted on federal bribery charges. You couldn't make up more interesting political news than that.


 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Difficult Men

Are that many guys really such assholes, or does every woman who has a close relationship with an asshole write a book? (Or a blog?) It seems like so many of these guys do things I wouldn't even think of, much less do, and I have a pretty twisted imagination (I've always felt that I should get some sort of credit for all the awful plans I think up but don't carry out).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

BC2012: Barack Like Me: The Chocolate-Covered Truth by David Alan Grier

This book was a pleasant surprise courtesy of the Borders bankruptcy sale. I had never heard of Grier—apparently I should know him from In Living Color or Dancing with the Stars, but I didn't watch either show—but I saw this book at the Oak Brook store as a $4.99 remainder when Humor was reduced 80 or 90%. It looked like it might be funny, so it was worth risking less than a dollar on it.

I was buzzed on countless refills of Coca-Cola on Monday night so I read the entire book out loud to my wife from 9 PM to 2:30 AM (with one bathroom break).

I expected this book to be funny, but I was surprised how choked up I got reading it (literally since I was reading aloud). Grier weaves his own story with the story of Barack Obama's ascent to the presidency, particularly his attendance at Obama's inauguration. Millions of blacks could tell a similar story, but Grier does it pretty well (with help from co-writer Alan Eisenstock) without over-dramatizing it.

Grier had a middle class upbringing in Detroit. His stories are mostly typical adolescent experiences, aside from the time he and a friend tried to join the Black Panthers. The stories from his professional life are a little weaker, although I liked his discussion with Lawrence Taylor about pounding on the DWTS judges. The Preface about being in the process of divorcing his wife (who appears many times in the book) kind of casts a pall over everything; I wish he had put that info in an Afterword instead.

My wife and I both enjoyed this book. Obviously it was good enough to hold our attention for more than five hours in a row, and it was also easier to read out loud than most books.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

BC2012: How to be a Person

This book caught my eye at the Book Cellar when I saw Dan Savage's name on the cover. Best known for his long-running "Savage Love" sex advice column, he is also editorial director of The Stranger, a Seattle alternative weekly newspaper. How to be a Person, which Savage co-authored with three others, is ambitiously subtitled "The Stranger's Guide to College, Sex, Intoxicants, Tacos and Life Itself", and it contains advice compiled from the paper's annual college issue.

I guess the best way to sum up How to be a Person is that it's a compilation of information from an alternative weekly newspaper. I know I wrote that in the previous paragraph, but it really does describe the quality and value of the book well. There are many helpful items, but there is also a lot of fluff. Sometimes it's pretty funny but other times it falls flat. Doesn't that describe the writing one finds in most alternative weekly newspapers?

I read this book aloud to my wife mainly because we both enjoy "Savage Love", a collegian-targeted edition of which takes up about one fifth of the book. We were mostly looking for entertainment rather than advice, which is good because I think How to be a Person offers more of the former. Overall I'd rate it just okay. If I knew someone going into college, I could probably find a better book for him or her.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Areas of Inexpertise

I was about to give a friend some advice about how to balance career and children. Then I remembered that I have neither.

BC2012: The Rock Snob*s Dictionary by David Kamp and Steven Daly

I bought this when it came out seven years ago, but I only made it to the letter E. I recently unearthed it while cleaning the bedroom, and I decided to start over at the beginning.

Do you have a friend who says Macca instead of "Paul McCartney"? Does your friend rave about groups like Big Star and Badfinger and use words like seminal? If so, you need this "Essential Lexicon of Rockological Knowledge" to figure out what the heck he/she (most likely he, in my experience) is talking about.

This book covers all the obscure-but-lauded bands, specialized sub-genres, "lost classic" albums, misunderstood geniuses, and other elements of the rock snob's world. I particularly love the entries where the authors use the word in a sentence, usually a painfully pretentious and condescending one!

This is great stuff, especially for those looking to explore the dusty corners of rock history or trying to comprehend the perspective of rock critics (critics being the best-known of rock snobs--and of course Lester Bangs gets an entry in this book).

BC2012: Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask by Anton Treuer

I read this aloud to my wife after purchasing it at the Book Cellar last month.

Treuer answers all sorts of common questions about Columbus, Thanksgiving, schools, casinos, AIM, taxes, Leonard Peltier, and anything else you can think of about native American life past and present. He clearly has an underlying agenda, which is to promote the preservation of tribal culture and language (not that that's a bad thing). That is his solution for a number of problems in modern Indian life. I don't know enough to say whether he's right.

Treuer is an Ojibwe from Minnesota, and that made this book especially interesting to me. Although I had seen the reservations on maps, this is the first time I've ever read anything about Minnesota tribes. Plus it is easier for me to identify with the Upper Midwest versus the Southwest and West. There are also many native Americans here in Chicago--they even have a cultural center just two miles from my home--but I don't know anything about them.

Everything You Wanted to Know about Indians But Were Afraid to Ask is a very informative book that largely delivers on its promise. The only caveat, as Treuer notes, is that many of the responses in this book are the opinions of one Indian, and he does not pretend to speak for all the native peoples of North America or even for his own tribe. In fact, he encourages the reader to engage with other Indians to learn different perspectives. This book is a great starting point for understanding.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Alcohol and Stairs

Has anyone else out there experienced unexpected difficulty climbing stairs after drinking? I'm not talking about being too drunk to navigate the steps. I mean my legs feel dead, and climbing stairs is noticeably harder than it should be. Walking doesn't feel any different, just going up stairs. CTA train station stairs are the worst, but then those concrete and/or steel steps never feel that great.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

The $65 Nap

My wife's work Christmas party was tonight. She wasn't planning to go, mainly because $65 per ticket seemed exorbitant. That's why I stopped going years ago--$130 per couple is a pretty expensive night out. But around 4:30 this afternoon she said she might go just to get a break from me. She's been on vacation for two weeks, so we've been seeing a lot of each other, maybe too much (we've established our limit as 18.5 days).

Then I went in the bedroom to read a book, and as often happens, I fell asleep. I awoke at 8 PM to find that my wife had not gone to the party. So that means taking a nap this evening saved us $65!

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Winner is Obvious

I've done a bit of lurking at Goodreads this year, trying to decide whether I want to actually participate. In a recent e-mail, they announced the Goodreads Choice Awards for 2012 as voted by site users. I had to laugh when I saw the winner for Best Nonfiction 2012.

Drumroll please... By a sizable margin, the winner for Best Nonfiction 2012 as selected by a community of avid book readers is... Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I should have seen that coming.

Clean Slate

Imagine what it would be like to wipe your brain clean of all the tired, overplayed songs on classic rock radio. Wouldn't it be awesome to hear all those songs for the very first time again?

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

How I Regret Your Mother

I used to look forward to How I Met Your Mother every week. Unfortunately, the show has pretty much run its course. The writers seem to be out of ideas, falling back on sitcom cliches more and more. I may be forgetting something, but as far as I can recall, there hasn't been a really great episode of this show since the ones following Marshall's dad's death. After seven years, I've gone from wondering How will it end? to pleading When will it end? Still I'm determined to see it through even though, aside from the titular mystery, the only unresolved plot line I'm remotely concerned about anymore is whether Lily's repeatedly expressed desire to make out with Robin will go unrequited.

I read a few months ago that all of the principal actors' contracts expire at the end of this season. That has given me some hope that the end is coming soon, and all will be revealed. I don't know if I can sit through another season of recycled or ever-more-ridiculous plots. With that hope comes conjecture. Here are some of my ideas for how the show will end:
  • Anyone familiar with the show would not be surprised if the kids found a way to bribe or trick one of their "uncles" or "aunts" into wrapping up the story approximately ten years before rambling dad Ted would.
  • At the beginning of the final episode, future Ted actor Bob Saget says, "Kids, enough of this crap. Let me tell you another story..." and launches into a 22-minute rendition of "The Aristocrats."
  • "Kids, back in 2012 there were lots of ads on the Internet for eastern European women wanting to meet American men. Let me tell you how I ordered your mother..."
  • "Kids, the truth is... I never met your mother. You're adopted."
  • "Kids, back in 2012 we all thought the world was going to end on December 21 because of some Mayan calendar b.s. So on December 20, I decided to bang every sentient, consenting female I could find. And one of them was your mother. Just don't tell her she was number five."
Any other ideas?

Saturday, December 01, 2012

November - BC2012 and Other Goals

November was a pretty good month for some goals, but I lost track of others. There is a saying that if you focus on everything, you focus on nothing. It has become clear that 10 goals is too many to work on consistently. That's a lesson learned for next year. I will happily drop a few goals I've accomplished, and I will shed a few more that are less important and/or harder to quantify. I haven't decided what to do regarding books, but in general it has worked out well for me this year, both pushing me to read more and forcing me to be more judicious about my purchases. But enough about 2013; I still have one more month to go in 2012.

1. Book Challenge 2012: I read 13 books in November, more than twice as many as in October. That puts my total well beyond the number I read in 2009, and I still have another month to go. Alas, I also bought a lot of books so I won't "win" by much. November totals: 13 books finished, 12 acquired. Overall totals: 112 books finished, 110 books acquired.

2. Cut down on e-mail: I finally bit the bullet and cancelled daily subscriptions to AdAge, YouSwoop, Eversave, Google Offers, and most LivingSocial lists. I bought a 2013 Entertainment Book that I will mine for savings in lieu of daily deals sites. I'm still on the fence about a couple of Yahoo Groups that I read in digest form.

3. Drive less: This wasn't one of my best months. I drove a lot one weekend when my wife was out of town, so I guess that means I can't be trusted without supervision.

4. Physical activity: Besides walking to Lincoln Square to shop once or twice a week, I haven't been doing much. I have to straighten out a couple of other issues before I can properly address this.

5. Drink more: I finished off the UV pink lemonade vodka and a bottle of Pinnacle plain vodka. The UV cake vodka is almost gone, and the Sobieski plain vodka is half finished. By the end of the year, I should have only one bottle left of the six vodkas I got with a Groupon deal last December. Too bad the "drink more water" part of this goal hasn't worked out as well as the "drink more booze" part has.

6. Dine and shop locally: Costello's and Rockwell's have had some great specials this month so I've been to both a lot. I also bought four books at the Book Cellar (one is a gift) to make up for not buying any in October, and I shopped at Gene's Sausage Shop as well. Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck finding Christmas gifts locally.

7. Clean and declutter: Not much progress lately, though I keep chipping away at the clutter in the kitchen and the dining room. I still need to take a carload to Goodwill plus several bags of stuff to Working Bikes.

8. Enhance and expand my web presence: I finally ordered and received my new website development and management software, but I probably won't do anything with it until 2013.

9. Figure out my professional future: This one is officially resolved: I'm a homemaker.

10. Floss regularly: This one is officially resolved as well: eight months without missing a day.

Friday, November 30, 2012

BC2012: Randy Bachman's Vinyl Tap Stories by Randy Bachman

Bachman is known in the U.S. as the guitarist who played with the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive (aka BTO). But in his native country, this guy is revered like the Canadian Eric Clapton. Those are my words, not his; I doubt Bachman would ever say such a thing. He's pretty humble as rock stars go, and he recognizes that he's led a pretty charmed life all in all. He worked hard to earn his success, but he's been fortunate to have so many great encounters with both his idols and his peers. He shares those stories on his radio show Vinyl Tap Stories (name inspired by This is Spinal Tap!) and in this book.

I've never heard the radio show, but I love this book. Bachman talks about growing up in Winnipeg (a different rock & roll experience compared to growing up in the U.S. or U.K.) and learning from Lenny Breau how to play guitar like Chet Atkins. His "Randy's Guitar Shoppe" chapter serves as a primer on rock guitars without getting too technical. Other chapters tell the stories behind his most popular songs and his experiences with performers from B.B. King and Jerry Lee Lewis to Eddie Van Halen and George Michael. Since it is based on his radio show, Bachman includes a relevant list of songs at the end of each chapter with the idea that readers can go to iTunes and listen to them.

Bachman never did drugs or drank, so his memory is still pretty good. Anyone who likes to read about 1960s and 1970s rock music should enjoy Randy Bachman's Vinyl Tap Stories.

BC2012: Welcome to Horneytown, North Carolina, Population: 15 by Quentin Parker

This book describes itself as "An A to Z Tour through 201 of the World's Weirdest & Wildest Places", but mostly it's about places with suggestive or weird names. I bought this shortly after it was published two years ago, but I stopped reading it because the format annoyed me. Each place gets one page, but then each page has a sidebar about where the place is, how it got its name, and what you should know about it. These questions are answered in the text, so the sidebars are mostly redundant. I know people have short attention spans these days, but is a sidebar summary of three to six paragraphs of text really necessary?

Parker includes my personal favorite, Kentucky's Big Bone Lick State Park, as well as Hell, MI, which I've visited by car and bicycle, and Cumming, GA, where my best friend used to live. Some of this book overlaps with 101 Places Not to See Before You Die: Wall Drug in Wall, SD; the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, CA; Fucking, Austria (whose residents voted against renaming); Dildo, Newfoundland (though Price suggests attending "Historic Dildo Days"); and Area 51/Rachel, NV.

Aside from the format complaint, this book is okay. A lot of the humor is on a Beavis & Butt-head level, but what would you expect someone to write about towns like Cunter, Switzerland; Dickshooter, ID; Middelfart, Denmark; Wanker's Corner, OR; French Lick, IN; Humptulips, WA; or Fingringhoe, England? The truth is that many of these places are tiny towns with little to mention aside from the name. I get the impression that Parker hasn't visited most of these places (if any), so he loses points for that. But if you're looking for something to snicker at, this is a fun book to read in small doses.

BC2012: 101 Places Not to See Before You Die by Catherine Price

We've all seen the ubiquitous-and-becoming-ridiculous genre -- authors challenging us to play 101 golf courses, watch 1001 movies, visit 501 gardens, etc. Price turns it upside down. Here is a book that lets the reader count the roads not traveled as accomplishments. Time not wasted is almost as good as time well spent.

This humorous travel book is a mixed bag, however. Some of the places designate a specific time not to visit such as "Ancient Rome on or Around the Night of July 18, 64 A.D." I love history, but those entries don't belong in this book. One could create a whole book of entries like "Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945", but what's the point? Fortunately, there aren't many like this. Other entries like "An AA Meeting When You're Drunk" are kind of lame, too.

Price includes some real shitholes both literal (Inland Empire Regional Composting Authority) and figurative (Ciudad Juarez), and I wish there were more of them. Many other places aren't really bad, just overrated (Wall Drug), not particularly interesting (the Beijing Museum of Tap Water), or mundane (the Grover Cleveland Service Area on the New Jersey Turnpike). The trouble with the uninteresting and mundane, of course, is that the list could be endless -- most places aren't really worth visiting if you think about it.

The guest entries are pleasant interludes, including a list from A.J. Jacobs of "The Worst Places in the Encyclopedia" (even though it falls into that historical category that I derided above). I'm not really giving a review that does this book justice. Most of it is entertaining, but I can't help thinking how it could have been better. I guess I wish Price had made it more travel-oriented.

BC2012: Smile When You're Lying by Chuck Thompson

I bought this book for the second time at Half Price Books in Highland Park last month. The first time was during the Borders bankruptcy, but I never got a chance to read that copy. On Moose's third day in our house, he tore up the blinds in the library and knocked over hundreds of unread books. Then, for the coup de grace, he lifted his leg and soaked a dozen of them, including Smile When You're Lying. So for the past four months I've been on a mission to replace them, picking them off one by one, Munich-like. I decided not to count them as part of Book Challenge 2012 since I already owned the original copies at the start of 2012. Though it was annoying to have to buy those books again, I can take some pride in spending even less on them the second time around than I did the first.

Travel writer Thompson's memoir was worth buying twice because I really enjoyed it. He rips on the lameness of most travel writing, which is indeed cloying and terribly written. For example, he hates when anything other than food is described as tasty or delicious. I wish he had included more of this criticism in the book. I also wish there had been more advice since what he offers is great (he notes that a lot of "savvy traveler" advice is bullshit, too, including such novel suggestions as looking on the Internet for lower fares).

Thompson describes how tourism took over his hometown of Juneau, AK, how schoolgirls ripped him off in Thailand (no, he was not trying to procure sex), what it was like teaching English in Japan in the late 1980s, and why he hates the Caribbean. I found the chapter about the Philippines particularly enlightening. I would recommend Smile When You're Lying to anyone who enjoys good travel stories without the advertiser-conscious sugar-coating, even an armchair traveler like me who's never been out of the U.S. Thompson also has written two books about the best World War II sites, one for Europe and the other for the Pacific. If I planned to visit those regions, I'd probably buy them.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Few Housekeeping Items

It's been almost a month since I tentatively renamed this blog. I think "The Hum of Desperation" is going to stick. I like it with the new font and italics.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was selling the DJRider domain. The former eight-year home of Dave's Cycling Pages is now a UK DJ equipment rental site with much hipper colors and layout than I ever had.

A while ago I was reading another blog and noticed a couple of widgets that I thought I might try here. If you scroll all the way to the bottom of the page, you will find a map from Map Loco showing where my visitors are located. I've loved maps since I was a kid so it seems appropriate to have one here. I wanted to put it higher on the page in the right column, but it's too wide (they only offer two sizes, and I must use the larger one). I trimmed the number of posts per page from 20 to 15 so the bottom of the page comes sooner.

I also added a Big Brother-ish widget on the right from Feedjit that shows recent blog visitors, what page they viewed, where they were located, and the sites they came from or went to. I'm alternately fascinated and creeped out by it, so it may not become a permanent fixture. It's not always accurate: my EarthLink DSL account sometimes registers as Downers Grove, IL or Minneapolis, MN(!). I have noticed at least two authors of books I reviewed this month have visited although they didn't leave comments (when someone visits from a small town in Utah and looks at a page for a book co-authored by someone who teaches at Southern Utah University, it's probably not a coincidence). I also had a visitor today from Istanbul, which gave me a reason to sing one of my favorite songs.

This year is turning out to be a sort of rebirth of this blog. It's only November and I've already posted more entries than any year since this blog's 2004-2007 heyday. Actually, I guess the trend began in 2011. If I hadn't nixed Book Challenge 2011, I would have exceeded 200 posts last year. This year with Book Challenge 2012 I'm almost certain to break that mark. Gosh, looking back it's hard to believe that sometimes I wrote as many as 47 entries in one month (September 2004, September 2007).

BC2012: Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper and Brian Bellmont

Oh my God, I loved this book! My wife got a kick out of it, too. The authors go through dozens of "The Lost Toys, Tastes & Trends of the '70s & '80s" ranging from "After School Specials" to ZOOM. Weebles, "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, Fisher Price little people, The Love Boat (as well as Fantasy Island, of course), Slime, Jolt Cola, Encyclopedia Brown books, View-Master, Malibu Barbie, and Schoolhouse Rock are all included.

One trend I had completely forgotten was "pen pals," where kids would exchange letters with someone living far away, often in another country. The idea seems so quaint today when someone in India can read my blog entries mere seconds after those thoughts have left my brain.

Cooper and Bellmont have done their research not just regarding the past, but also "where they are now." Surprisingly, a lot of the things we thought disappeared forever years ago have either been resurrected or never went away. You can still buy candy cigarettes, Moon Boots, Sea-Monkeys, and Shrinky-Dinks. Walmart reintroduced Garanimals in 2008.

I learned a lot, too. I had no idea Stretch Armstrong was filled with corn syrup!

It was especially fun to share this book with my wife and compare childhood memories. The authors also drop in references to things that didn't merit their own entries. There is even a detailed index, a particularly rare feature in an "A to Z" formatted book. I only wish the publishers had given the authors another 50 pages to fill (they apologize in advance for omissions*). I truly didn't want this book to end. Smiles, everyone, smiles!


* Like Merlin. Simon is included, but what about Merlin?


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Looking for the Heart of Saturday Night*

My marriage isn't like normal marriages. No, we don't have an "open" marriage, no matter how many times I've suggested it to my wife. I mean my marriage isn't normal because my wife works nights. The traditional dinner ritual doesn't exist in our house. I am accustomed to eating dinner alone either at home or in a restaurant (I've never understood that "I can't eat alone in a restaurant" hang-up), but figuring out what to do on popular date nights still gives me a little trouble. It seems like time passes slowly alone on a Saturday night.

For one thing, I don't like going out for dinner when places are crowded. I could get something delivered, but that always feels a little decadent when I'm by myself. Ditto for preparing a meal -- why do all that work for one person to eat? -- so I usually just throw something in the microwave. Unfortunately, that doesn't take much time at all.

Being cable-less and dish-less, I'm stuck with network television. But because so many people go out, the networks have practically given up on Saturday nights. Heck, CBS shows reruns. So people like me who aren't out on dates are left with nothing worth watching.

I could read a book, but I read best with endless refills of Coca-Cola in front of me in a restaurant. When I read at home at night, I tend to fall asleep. That does pass the time, but then I won't be tired when my wife comes home and wants to go to sleep.

I could work on one of the many projects around the house, but even though I haven't worked full-time in a while I still feel like I should be "off" on the weekend. It just seems wrong to caulk windows or wash clothes on a Saturday night.

I could walk the dogs... but I never really want to walk the dogs, especially when it's cold outside.

I could exercise since I know I should exercise, but of course I don't.

It's easy to pass the time online, of course. During the fall I might read up on the latest Chicago Bears news before Sunday's game. I could be productive and pare down my backlog of e-mail messages or update my websites, but I'm more likely to play games at partybingo.com. Yeah, that'll work. My wife will be home in just a few hours...


* The title demands the obvious question, What would Tom Waits do on a Saturday night? Whatever it is, I'm sure his life is more interesting than mine.

BC2012: Autobiography of a Fat Bride by Laurie Notaro

I enjoyed Notaro's debut The Idiot Girls' Action-Adventure Club, and this book, her second, may be even better. The first thirteen chapters about various boyfriends and her wedding are especially hilarious. Although there are a few duds among the forty-odd other chapters, overall this is another funny collection of great stories. Also I am endlessly jealous of Notaro's ability to mine her family for material and get away with it.

BC2012: Mindblowers by Jim Rhine

Mindblowers promises to be "A Look Back at History That Will Change the Way You Look at the World Today". I'm not sure it's quite that mind-blowing, but I did learn a few things.

The book is a collection of one- or two-page historical vignettes grouped into thirteen sections. Oddly, the first seven parts are time periods in chronological order, while the last six are subjects such as word origins and sports. It was unclear whether this inconsistent organizational approach was intended to blow my mind.

Anyway, I enjoyed reading this one to my wife. It's always entertaining to review such debacles as the Crusades, the Donner Party, the Maginot Line, and the medical ineptitude that doomed President James Garfield.

Friday, November 23, 2012

BC2012: Why Is The Penis Shaped Like That? by Jesse Bering

This book, subtitled "...And Other Reflections on Being Human", is a mildly titillating collection of articles discussing evolutionary psychology and biology. It begins with the racy bits as promised, contemplating the evolutionary explanations for things like pubic hair, masturbation, female orgasm, and even cannibalism. Some chapters left me thinking, Wow, scientists really have investigated everything! Later topics include religion (Bering explains why he trusts religious people more despite being an atheist himself), suicide, and free will.

Although it doesn't fit into the book all that well, the chapter about being buried sans preservatives under a tree to fertilize it as one's legacy has inspired me. I'll have to look into this especially "green" burial practice. Fun fact: Did you know that over 90,000 tons of steel are buried annually in the U.S. in the form of caskets?

Why Is The Penis Shaped Like That? is a very interesting, thought-provoking read for the layperson. Generally, Bering reviews the existing body of research for each topic, providing endnotes for further investigation. He also brings his own experiences and wit into the narrative, making some of the drier clinical stuff more lively.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Our New Weight-Loss Plan: The Moose Diet

No, this isn't Sarah Palin's "Mama Grizzly Diet" of real Alaskan moose.

We just buy whatever sweet and/or fattening foods we desire, put them someplace high but not quite high enough, and then let our dog Moose knock them to the floor and devour them. So far the Moose Diet has spared us the calories of
  • one whole raspberry kringle
  • one whole Dutch apple pie
  • two partial loaves of bread
  • one asiago cheese bread demi loaf from Panera
I also caught him in the act with a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread (would you like some jelly with that, Moose?), but he only slobbered on those.

UPDATE 11/23/2012 -- Add another apple pie to the list above, this time homemade. Yes, at this point we are willing to acknowledge that we are idiots being outwitted regularly by a young, goofy dog.

Friday, November 09, 2012

James Bond: He's No Bruce Wayne

Back in July, my wife went to the nearby Davis Theater to see the special midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. That event, and perhaps the movie itself, will be remembered for the mass shooting in Aurora, CO that night more than anything else. Fortunately, everything was fine at the sold-out show my wife attended. When it was over, she called me and I drove over to pick her up (it's only three blocks away, but why take chances in the city at 3 AM?). On the way, I had to wait for hordes of Batfans in the crosswalks on Lincoln Avenue near the theater. Some people, mostly kids, were even in costume as the caped crusader, and it was a festive atmosphere in the middle of a summer night.

Earlier this week my wife bought a ticket for the 12:07 AM premiere Friday of the new James Bond film, Skyfall (12:07 AM = 0:07, get it?). Actually, she didn't buy a ticket; they gave her a free one because she was in her police uniform. I couldn't help wondering whether this freebie was a policy change in light of the Aurora shooting (she didn't ask).

As luck would have it, my wife forgot her ticket at work last night so she had to buy a new one. I dropped her off at the theater around 11:45 PM, and she signaled to me from the box office that she was able to purchase a replacement ticket.

She called around 2:45 AM after the movie and I got in the car to go pick her up. As I drove down Lincoln Avenue, I saw two people walking across the empty parking lot at the Western Avenue L station. When I pulled up in front of the theater, my wife stood there alone.

I asked her how the movie was. "There were only, like, three people in the whole theater!" she exclaimed.

Even allowing for the cooler fall weather and possibly some paranoia following the Aurora shooting, it's clear that when it comes to box office appeal, James Bond is no match for Batman.

I told her I had suspected as much because the streets were so empty. "I guess the theater really needed the revenue from that second ticket you bought, huh?"

BC2012: Stumbling on Wins by David J. Berri and Martin B. Schmidt

The authors are economists who apply statistical analysis to professional sports. If you've seen or read Moneyball, which the authors mention, you understand the revolutionary potential of such an approach. My biggest problem with Stumbling on Wins is too much basketball.* I soldiered through the main text, but I will confess to skimming the footnotes and the appendix where the NBA was concerned. I notice now that there are separate Kindle editions for basketball and football. The authors also discuss hockey, particularly the impact of goalies, and a few baseball issues.

Though this is a book for the geekiest of sports fans, it includes some interesting analysis that anyone can follow. I have heard some of these arguments before, such as how NFL teams should "go for it" on fourth down more than they do. But there are some unusual perspectives as well. For example, the authors argue that kickers provide more value to their teams by kicking off well (deep, hard to return, giving the other team poor field position) than by making field goals.

Overall, Stumbling on Wins is interesting but not great. It was worth reading but not worth recommending/passing on to others. I suppose I might consider their earlier volume, The Wages of Wins, but only if there's less NBA content.


* Short, fat kids like me hated basketball because we sucked at it. Later I lived in Chicago during the Michael Jordan years, and if that couldn't make me like basketball, nothing ever will.


Thursday, November 08, 2012

BC2012: I Hate Everything by Matthew DiBenedetti

I had an idea for a book like this, but it didn't work out. That's okay; DiBenedetti did a much better job with the concept than I would have. This book could easily be an unbearable litany of whiny complaints, but the author is more clever than that. Here is one example:
I hate that I'm going bald.
I hate that I still make fun of bald people.
I hate karma.
I Hate Everything is at least worth leafing through in the bookstore. Odds are good that the reader will chuckle enough while flipping pages to go ahead and buy the book. It might depend on one's mood at the time, too. I read this to my wife over the course of a week. At one point she said she couldn't take all that negativity and asked me to read only ten pages per day. The next day I plowed through the remainder of the book (more than 50 pages) and she didn't complain.

BC2012: The Great Taos Bank Robbery by Tony Hillerman

I've never read any of the mystery novels Hillerman is known for, but I've seen several on my dad's shelves. This is a collection of true essays he wrote about the Southwest for his Masters thesis. These informative and entertaining tales from the 1950s and 1960s offer a glimpse of what New Mexico was like decades before Santa Fe became super trendy. Hillerman writes about anthropological digs, bubonic plague, radical and corrupt politicians, native Americans, and more. The title story and a few others are hilariously told, and all of them are well-written. Anyone who likes Hillerman or New Mexico should love The Great Taos Bank Robbery.

Note: The second book cover below is the one I read, but as far as I know both editions have the same content.

 

Oh Jeez, Not Another One!

Yep, we're back up to three dogs. Just like last time, the third is an older yellow lab female. Her name is Rexy, she's eleven, and she used to be a bomb-sniffing police dog.

We've had her for a few weeks, but I held off posting because I was kind of hoping someone else would want her. She's not much trouble by herself, but any dog is a burden when it's the third. She is afraid to go down our back stairs, which is pretty annoying because we have to take her out in front all the time. On the bright side, she doesn't waste much time out there, just squats and does whatever she has to do. And sniffs. She loves to sniff, which is how she got her old job in the first place.


Oh, and she likes to sleep, although she gets around pretty well for her age. And thank your lucky stars this blog isn't Smell-O-Vision because she's got a butt trumpet that plays nonstop (and I mean that in the audible sense -- she's like the Dizzy Gillespie of gas).

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Democracy Hangover

That's what people are feeling today after staying up late to watch the election results and speeches and/or celebrate Obama's victory or drown their sorrows over Romney.

My wife talked her (work) partner into voting last night and drove halfway across the city to do so. Then her partner voted for Romney "because I don't like [Chicago Mayor Rahm] Emanuel and he's Obama's buddy." That has got to be one of the stupidest reasons I've ever heard. What is this, high school? Plus she's a lesbian. Why would a lesbian vote Republican?* Heck, I can't even see why a woman would vote Republican regardless of orientation. But then I did say yesterday that I couldn't see any good reason to vote for Romney so I guess hers will do.

I tuned in to NBC's coverage because I like Brian Williams, but I fell in love with Savannah Guthrie. I'm not sure she's a great political analyst but I am sure I don't care. I'm almost smitten enough to start watching the Today show.

In the end, I think I was right (don't I always?). The media made this thing out to be much closer than it really was. Sure it was closer than last time, but it wasn't as close as 2004, much less 2000. At one point NBC showed six "battleground" states and then admitted that Obama needed to win only one or two while Romney would have to win all of them. Obama is over 300 electoral votes so far, and he'll probably take Florida once those sun-baked clowns finish counting, too.

I think it's interesting that Mitt couldn't win the state he governed nor the state his dad governed. But he won Utah, by golly. Let's all drink a cup of coffee to that.

Then Romney made us wait 100 minutes for his concession speech apparently because his campaign people were certain that a few Republicans in Ohio's Hamilton County were going to outweigh 200,000 uncounted, mostly Democratic Cuyahoga County residents. By the time he went onstage in Boston, enough results had come in from other states to make Ohio moot anyway.

Romney's speech was mercifully short. Obama spoke with more passion and intensity than I expected, almost like a preacher at times. I hope he can pull Congress together and get something done in the next four years. Whatever happens, the best news about his victory is that Obamacare will stand. It's not perfect, but it's a solid step toward the kind of health security other industrialized nations enjoy.


* Dan Savage can answer that one (and he used to be a Republican). A reader wondered, "Gay Republicans, Dan. Why? How?" He replied, "Self-loathing, that's why. Homophobia, that's how."

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

How is this thing even close?

 From a Chicago Tribune e-mail alert* an hour ago:
Voting began this morning in a neck-and-neck presidential election with polls showing President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney effectively tied in a race that likely will be decided in a handful of states.
There's a reason I haven't been blogging about this presidential campaign.** How can anyone take a ridiculously wealthy corporate rapist*** devoid of personality and good ideas like Romney seriously? Even the Republicans I know can't understand how anyone can feel inspired to vote for him. He's a total loser of a candidate, and yet this election is "neck-and-neck"? What the Hell are people thinking?

Everyone gets their pants in a bunch when someone cries "racism", but Romney's only notable trait aside from being rich and smug is his Wonder Bread whiteness. At least racism is a more honest reason for voting for him rather than "I think Romney is really looking out for middle-class Americans and he has great ideas." (I think the real elephant in the room is Mormonism. It's hard to imagine evangelical Christians who have dismissed Mormonism as a cult for so long are willing to put a Mormon in the Oval Office, but maybe they really do hate Obama that much. Besides, evangelicals are nothing if not hypocritical.)

I'm fairly convinced -- and I'm not alone -- that the alleged closeness of this contest is a media conspiracy designed to keep us from having turned off our televisions months ago. I hope I'm right because Romney's America scares me even more than Dubya's America.


* BTW I find these "alerts" about nothing to be rather annoying. We have known when Election Day is for a long time, so how is this "news"? The occurrence of a scheduled event is not news, and yet the Tribune sends me crap like this all the time.

** In retrospect, I should have been linking to the awesome stories in Rolling Stone by Matt Taibbi and others.

*** If, after enduring the Wall Street-engineered financial crisis and economic collapse, we elect a guy who made his fortune sucking the value out of companies and screwing people on Wall Street, then maybe we deserve what we get. We may as well elect Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

BC2012: Freak Nation by Kate Stevens

This book is "A Field Guide to 101 of the MOST Odd, Extreme, and Outrageous American Subcultures." Well, it isn't really. I mean, many of these subcultures sound pretty bland to me. Jugglers? Hot Rodders? Junior Leaguers? Not exactly odd, extreme, or outrageous. I would have preferred some really unusual people like Looners (balloon fetishists). The author also has omitted hate groups; I'd consider the Ku Klux Klan or the Michigan Militia to be much more odd, extreme, and outrageous than Model Railroaders or Libertarians.

Aside from the ordinariness of a few subcultures, Freak Nation is an interesting and funny book. Stevens runs through the same list of topics for each group, including who they are, where to find them, how to recognize them, biggest controversy, biggest misconception about, et al. She also briefly describes how to tell a fan, a geek, and a superfreak in each subculture. To use Libertarians as a humorous example:
  • Sign of fan: Wraps self in flag.
  • Sign of geek: Wraps self in flag, then burns flag just because it should be within citizen's right to do so.
  • Sign of superfreak: Wraps self in flag, burns flag, objects to taxes on purchase of new flag.
I've read similar books about groups that are more "out there", but Freak Nation succeeds in covering a broad range of unusual people in an informative and amusing way. It's a sort of Cliffs Notes for subcultures.

The subtitle of this book is apt because this is the 101st book I have completed in 2012, tying my total from 2009. I honestly didn't plan it that way!

Saturday, November 03, 2012

"Start a blog that matter!"

The title is the subject line of a painfully written e-mail I received today. Here's the first paragraph:
Billions blogs are in online today. More than thousands of blogs are started in every day. But very few people can start blogs that matter. The question is “what makes them successful in blogging?” To learn behind this success Corbett Barr invents 90 days action plan training. By using this lots of people are getting their success to start their blogs.
I am to wish able write blog with such correct languages!


Sorry, I guess bad writing is contagious. I think I'm over it now. Sometimes unsolicited e-mail is funnier than any joke-a-day subscription.

BC2012: Economics Without Illusions by Joseph Heath

I can't believe I finished my 100th book of 2012 on November 2!

Heath is a Canadian philosophy teacher, and those traits combine to make this one of the best economics books I've read. Being Canadian offers the advantage of being outside the U.S. and able to look at our country's economics and politics without a personal stake (he also doesn't have that peculiarly American disdain for all things European). Being well versed  in philosophy gives him a different perspective on economics than traditional economists (he has pursued economics as more of a hobby rather than as a career path, much as I have (though I did ace micro and macro in college)). And being a teacher means he knows how to communicate and educate, skills that some economics authors frankly lack.

The book is subtitled "Debunking the Myths of Modern Capitalism", and Heath approaches this by addressing a dozen economic fallacies, half right-wing and half left-wing. Each fallacy serves as a jumping-off point for a broader discussion of pertinent issues. It may surprise some readers that while I am wholeheartedly liberal in most cases, economically my viewpoint is closer to the middle. Thus I enjoyed Heath's debunking at both ends of the spectrum (okay, maybe I enjoyed the right-wing debunking a little bit more). I also appreciate his acknowledgment that economic problems can be very complicated and not easily resolved by knee-jerk ideological strategies.

Some of Heath's perspectives were truly eye-opening for me. For example, he asserts that taxes are essentially club fees. When you join a health club (country club, condo association, etc.), you pay a fee that is used to maintain all the facilities whether you use them or not. Taxes are like a country's membership dues. Heath goes on to say that right wingers treat taxes as something inherently evil that acts as a drain on the economy, but that would only be the case if the government collected the money and buried it. What taxes actually do is shift spending from the individual to the government, just as health club dues shift the purchase of exercise equipment from the individual to the club. It has the same economic impact regardless of who is spending the money.* Whether Nautilus sells 100 machines to individuals or 100 machines to health clubs, it's still selling 100 machines.

Writing about the government requiring forced saving or mandatory insurance (Obamacare comes to mind), Heath makes the point that "instead of trying to fiddle with these programs to make them seem less paternalistic, a more promising strategy would be to challenge the old assumptions that fail to distinguish between institutions that tell people how to live their lives and those that help people carry through on the commitments needed to live their lives more successfully."

Economics Without Illusions is a fascinating yet somewhat disheartening book. One cannot help but wonder how much better our lives could be if we could move beyond these economic fallacies, but too many people are committed to them for one reason or another so that will never happen.


* As in most economics discussions , one has to make some assumptions for simplicity's sake. For example, this statement does not take into account that sales to health clubs might have a marketing value that individual sales do not (potential customers are more likely to see and use the equipment in health clubs than in individual homes).

Friday, November 02, 2012

Death of a DJ

Someone recently contacted me about purchasing my DJRider domain for his DJ persona. Since I was getting tired of my initials anyway, I figured this would be the time to reorganize my online world. In a nutshell, everything will move to DavidJohnsen.com or disappear except for Biking Illinois:
  • The location of this blog will not change.
  • The location of Biking Illinois will not change.
  • Dave's Bicycling Pages are now here. I will no longer use DJRider.*
  • My business site, DJWriter, is gone, but the domain points to DavidJohnsen.com.
  • Some sites link to Dave's Bicycling Pages through the DJWriter domain. Those links should still work.
  • My ever-popular anti-Vegas blog entry is still in the same place for those who have linked to it, even though my blog moved two years ago, my company site is gone, and the blog's name has changed. I would prefer that people visit this page in the blog's new location instead, but I don't want to break those links.
  • I'll probably hang on to the DJWriter domain indefinitely unless someone wants to buy it.
  • America in Pictures and my 2007 PNW travelogue remain at DavidJohnsen.com as always.
The homepage for DavidJohnsen.com is still as butt-ugly as before, but I hope to redo it someday soon (but you all know how that goes...). Maybe I should put in one of those "under construction" animated GIFs with blinking lights and pretend it's 1996!

I just thought of something... This reorganization could be considered part of my decluttering project. I have simplified my online presence, getting rid of a domain I didn't really need. Now everything is together in one place.

Next up: I really need to migrate off this old laptop from 2005 (yes, the very laptop that Biking Illinois was written on!) and back onto my faster desktop that was fixed three months ago. I know part of it is that I like the Windows XP interface so much better than Windows 7. Another looming issue is organizing my back-up external hard drives (I have at least seven). I also need to learn a new web development product (leaning toward WebPlus X6). I've been using KompoZer on the laptop, but it hasn't been updated in several years.


* I started using DJRider because all of my cycling stuff was at DJWriter and I was worried that when I told people the URL, they might think I said rider instead of writer (my web hosting package includes five domains anyway, so why not?). Now that I'm not using DJWriter anymore, there isn't any reason to have DJRider either, especially since I'm not adding much content to it anymore. DJRider never caught on with the search engines anyway.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

October - BC2012 and Other Goals


October wasn't the best month for BC2012, but I made progress in other areas.

1. Book Challenge 2012: I only read six books this month, which without checking I'll assume is the worst total all year. I did a lot of shopping, though, mostly because I was happy and enjoying myself. October totals: 6 books finished, 13 acquired. Overall totals: 99 books finished, 98 books acquired.

2. Cut down on e-mail: Maybe November will be the month when I finally cut back on the daily deal e-mails.

3. Drive less: I think this was good in October. I've been taking the L downtown instead of driving to the inner suburbs.

4. Physical activity: I went for one bike ride at Busse Woods. It wasn't long but it was my best ride of the year. I felt good and had a great time. I think not having Biking Illinois hanging over my head made all the difference. I need much more exercise, though.

5. Drink more: I've been enjoying UV cake vodka a few gulps at a time.

6. Dine and shop locally: I returned to Costello's and Rockwell's, and I had good meals at both. I skipped the Book Cellar this month, which is just as well considering how many books I bought elsewhere.

7. Clean and declutter: I bought two shelving units for the kitchen and made real progress there. I also went through my wife's stuff and organized it into piles --- now I just need to get her to go through those piles. I'm about halfway through getting all of my printed photographs together. Also I can see the floor in the middle of my office for the first time since we moved in. Oh, and I finally got rid of my books after picking out number 500 to donate. I'd like to take a carload of stuff to Goodwill in November.

8. Enhance and expand my web presence: Oddly enough, my web presence is contracting, but I'll write more about that another time.

9. Figure out my professional future: This one is officially resolved.

10. Floss regularly: After seven months without missing a day, I think it's safe to say this goal is attained as well.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

BC2012: The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

I am so glad that I read this book. All the things I once loved about Hamilton are evident: his sincerity, his modesty, his dedication, and his honesty. Wait -- honesty? Well, at least I used to think he was being honest, and as he explains it, doping was taken for granted in cycling to the point where they didn't even think of themselves as cheaters. I have no reason to doubt his honesty now -- The Secret Race is the most detailed account of doping tactics in cycling that I've ever read. I can't imagine how or why anyone would make this stuff up.

I could write a book-length review of this book, but I'll just note a few things:
  • Hamilton gives a great description of bike racing that I've never heard before: "Each race is really a bunch of smaller races, contests that always have one of two results: you either keep up, or you don't."
  • Most cyclists' wives and girlfriends knew about doping. It made me wonder how Lance Armstrong handled his divorce from Kristin. Did he pay her extra to shut up, or did she shut up to keep the money flowing to her and the kids?
  • For years I've felt that Greg LeMond was just an old-timer who was jealous of Armstrong's success. Clearly I need to reevaluate that opinion.
  • As various cyclists got caught, I'd think Well, at least _____ is still clean. After reading this book I doubt that any of them were clean, certainly not any of the notable three-week grand tour riders.
  • I don't think Hamilton would call Armstrong an asshole -- he expresses a lot of admiration for him -- but after reading this book I know that's what I'd call him.
This wouldn't be a good book for someone who doesn't know much about cycling. Hamilton doesn't deliver the blow-by-blow excitement of the Tours he rode, choosing to focus on a few critical moments in his career and a few races that relate to the doping he describes. The ideal reader is someone already familiar with pro cycling during the 1996-2004 era. As one of those people, I got a lot of closure from The Secret Race. It answers a lot of questions that I had as well as many that I never would have thought to ask.

One thing I wondered about was how so many formal Postal riders got caught after they left the team. Hamilton lets former teammate Jonathan Vaughters explain that one:
The thing to realize about Fuentes and all these guys is that they're doping doctors for a reason. They're the ones who didn't make it on the conventional path, so they're not the most organized people. So when they leave a bag of blood out in the sun because they're having another glass of wine at the cafe, it's predictable. The deadly mistake that Tyler, Floyd, Roberto [Heras], and the rest of them made when they left Postal was to assume that they'd find other doctors who were as professional. But when they got out there, they found -- whoops! -- there weren't any others.
That makes sense, but for some reason it hadn't occurred to me before. Speaking of blood bags left in the sun, Tyler describes an instance during the 2004 Tour when he got a transfusion of bad blood, probably the most wince-inducing episode in the book.

The Secret Race is a lively account that is hard to put down. Coyle, author of Lance Armstrong's War*, does an excellent job shaping Hamilton's narrative and inserting notes from other sources. It's too bad the book couldn't have waited to include some info from the USADA report as well. I would recommend it to any pro cycling fan who wants to know what really happened in the sport during the Armstrong years.


* That is the most balanced book I've read about Armstrong, neither attacking nor glorifying him (he is treated fairly in this book as well). Introducing The Secret Race, Coyle says Armstrong was "okay" with Lance Armstrong's War, which IMO is probably the nicest thing he would say about any book not originating from within his camp. Coyle says people often asked him whether Armstrong was doping, and he said he was 50-50 with the likelihood rising as time passed. He considered doping to be too depressing and didn't plan to write about it again until Hamilton approached him.


 

BC2012: Be CentsAble: How to Cut Your Household Budget in Half by Chrissy Pate and Kristin McKee

Now that I'm accepting my role as homemaker, I figured I may as well try to get better at it. This book is a quick and easy read, and it's probably quite useful to some people. I picked up a few tips, but seriously, I bought this book new for 90 cents* -- I'm pretty good at getting deals already.

In general, Be CentsAble is filled with reasonable advice. It isn't one of those frugal-freak books that has "ten ways to reuse TV dinner trays" or "how to make a toothbrush last for 15 years." It is about how to shop, where to shop, and how to save money at those stores. The chapter about saving on utilities is good, but I've already done the things they suggest. The chapter on budgeting sounds decent, but I could never get my wife to do it.

One of their travel suggestions horrified me: "head to the book store with a notebook and spend a couple of hours getting ideas from a current travel guidebook." I'm sorry, but that crosses the line from saving money to thievery, especially as a suggestion from a book author. That is so wrong that I couldn't imagine having the nerve to do it. Leaf through a guidebook, sure, but take notes? If you really don't want to pay for anything you should use the Internet or the library. Besides, a current travel guidebook can be quite handy on a vacation if your plans change and you have to improvise. If you're going to use the information, just pay the fifteen bucks!

The authors are moms so there is a lot about saving money on stuff for kids. Of course, I nailed that one already -- the best way to save money is not to have kids in the first place. Just the other night somebody on TV was talking about the costs of raising children, and my wife said, "Boy, we dodged a bullet there!"

The authors have a very useful website that they rightfully plug numerous times in their book. Check it out for lots of great money-saving resources.

Becentsable

* I miss Borders so much! And that purchase came before the bankruptcy sale.

Call me John M. Smyth

One of the goals I set for this year was to determine my professional future. I have joked about my lack thereof, but deep inside I knew there was more than a little truth in that.

Frankly, copywriting was always something I could do, not something I yearned to do. I was decent at it (my very first client loved my work) and I found satisfaction in doing my job well, but I never had the drive or determination required to succeed in a freelance environment. Self-promotion is the key to freelance success, and I've never been good at that. As for writing in general (beyond the advertising world), I lack the creativity. Freelance writers are expected to generate story ideas, and I just don't have any (or at least not enough). Copyediting or proofreading would probably be my ideal job, but those jobs are disappearing as victims of budget cuts and offshoring. I read enough to know there isn't much proofreading being performed these days, not even by major newspapers and publishers.

To some extent, I'd like to blame the Internet for my diminished value and prospects. Twenty years ago being a writer or a photographer was a real skill; nowadays everybody with a blog thinks he's a writer* and everyone with a flickr account thinks she's a photographer.** That's way too much competition for someone with the aforementioned lack of drive and determination. The Internet also features dozens of people who make copywriting sound like the greatest frigging job in the universe. After a while one realizes that the reason the job sounds so great is because -- duh! -- these people are professional copywriters and selling is their life. Of course they are convincing.

There are other, not particularly viable options. My wife thinks I should get a job working with animals, but I don't even like working with our animals. There's always my college degree "to fall back on", but that's practically worthless now. Even if I wanted to get back into computer programming, I've been adrift for far too long to get hired. With neither marketable skills nor driving ambition, I suppose I could just take some random McJob. But the economy is still shit, so even McJobs are hard to come by.

For much of the past few years, I have been hoping for an epiphany, an instant of clarity that would tell me what to do. As I've explained in numerous conversations, I don't need a job that pays a lot; I just want something fulfilling. In theory I could be doing something great, but I'd even settle for useful. As I've also said many times, in the capitalist economy I'm just a drag on the whole system, just sucking up oxygen.



For 130 years (until 2005), there was a chain of Chicagoland furniture stores called John M. Smyth's Homemakers. And now that's what I am, a homemaker. I'm not going to delude myself that earning $1-2,000 a year makes me "employed" in any credible sense. Is this what I'm "meant" to do in life? Doubtful, I think, but it's where I am now.

I've been answering surveys and focus groups that way for a few months***, and I think it suits me. I'm the organized one and the savvy shopper. I manage our money and pay the bills. We don't eat at home together often, but I cook 90% of the time when we do. In general, things seem to be running smoother as I've increased my role in taking care of the household. This has been evolving for many years, of course; this post isn't so much about becoming a homemaker as it is about accepting it.

So that puts to rest one of my more vexing 2012 goals. This doesn't preclude taking the odd job for extra cash, but at least for now, it is an acknowledgment that I have no professional career objectives or prospects. And I think I'm finally okay with that.


* I may appear to fit that description, but I'll argue that my experience editing college and high school newspapers 20 years ago puts me in another category. At least I have some journalistic training.

** Photography is another career path I've considered from time to time. Before digital, I knew my way around a fully manual 35mm SLR, and I get enough compliments that I consider myself a photographer rather than a snapshot taker. Over the past decade I've lost interest in photography mostly because I realized that without having kids, no one will give a shit about any of my photos when I'm gone. In that regard, photography became too much of a metaphor for my life in general.

*** It beats "unemployed loser." But seriously, that brings up one of my pet peeves: some surveys only offer the choice of "staying home with children" instead of "homemaker." Who says you have to have kids for a spouse to stay at home? I could write a whole book about the subtle and not-so-subtle prejudices against childless couples, but that's already been done.