Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Book Review: Kurt Vonnegut's "Bluebeard: The Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916-1988)"

What an interesting book. Vonnegut's 1987 novel is about many things, but it's essentially the diary of Rabo Karabekian, a one-eyed failed Abstract Expressionist painter and how he learns to accept his weaknesses and creativity towards the end of his life. The story skips back and forth between the present narration and the past – his growing up with his Armenian immigrant parents, struggling through an art apprenticeship, his rise and fall in the serious art world. Vonnegut, as always, entertains while pulling off something deep – his glib prose belies the depth behind the thoughts and experience it details. What I found most interesting about the book was the conflict between its generally cynical tone and, in the end, its generally positive message. In this respect, it’s an old persons novel. I'm not really sure how to express it, so let me include some examples. The cynicism:
“A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily communication with nothing but world’s champions.
The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap-dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. We have a name or him or her. We call him or her an “exhibitionist.”
How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, “Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!”
And the humanity:
"I think--it is somehow very useful, and maybe even essential, for a fine artist to have to somehow make his peace on the canvas with all the things he cannot do. That is what attracts us to serious paintings, I think: that shortfall, which we might call "personality," or maybe even "pain." "
(More quotes here.) 
Other than Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s other books haven’t always spoken to me. But this little gem of a novel blew me away.

Cross-posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

See also: First Lines of Kurt Vonnegut's "Bluebeard"

Monday, October 28, 2013

Race Report: TARC Fall Classic

thx to GoMotion and Topham Photography
It’s funny how things evolve. A few years ago, not only was I not running on a regular basis, but the idea of running on trails was something I had relegated to the closet with my high school XC mementos. Fast forward a few years and now I’m addicted to running as much as I can – and running in my first trail race since my senior year of high school. The event? The TARC Fall Classic – a loop through Great Brook Farm State Park in Carlisle MA on an absolutely fantastic fall day – a clear, chilly morning fading into unseasonably warm temps by late morning. I did the half-marathon (two loops) but runners could also do a 10K, marathon or a 50K. Most of the course was relatively smooth trails with some rolling, rooty hills, alternating with a few miles of fields and a highly technical 1.5 mile stretch towards the end (the Woodchuck Trail).

I had run the course a week before with Eric and Adam, so I knew what to expect. However, the race was structured so that the ultrarunners would go directly onto the trails while the half and full marathoners needed to do an extra field loop or two before hitting the trails. This meant that for good positioning, I needed to haul ass in order to get ahead of as many ultras as I could before hitting the single-track. As evidenced by my pace the first two miles, I did my best, but an unfortunately-timed loose shoelace meant that I lost valuable time and was stuck behind a fair number of runners by the time I started up Indian Hill.

I’m not entirely sure what the etiquette is for passing runners on trails. In my high school days, I would have just bushwacked into the woods to pass someone, but now I don’t want to thrash up the wilderness and am much more aware of the risk of turning an ankle. So when I found myself behind someone on the single-tracks, I typically hung behind them, only passing when a suitable place presented itself. I’m sure I annoyed some foax but it I felt like I essentially stayed on pace.

A clear majority of the race was comfortable, striding up the hills and hammering the downhills. However, the extremely challenging Woodchuck Trail and its immediate aftermath was windy, extremely rocky, and with a lot of quick ups and downs. I traversed it the best I could, trying to keep my feet up, but you can see by the slow pace times how different it was from the rest of the course (miles 6 and 12).

At the end of the day, I scored a 5th place finish with a time of 1:42:25. I didn't really know what to expect, given that I felt my training was just adequate—I wasn't doing a lot of speed work and certainly not as much technical trail work as (in hindsight) the course demanded--so I was pleasantly surprised by my performance. (Full results here.)

I’d be remiss if I didn't mention the DIY food tables – easily the best I've ever seen at a race. Kudos to the TARC folks for throwing a great event – a challenging race with an atmosphere a perfect blend of friendly competition and campfire party. Perfect weather, good friends, solid run: you can’t ask for more than that!

Cross-posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Review: Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend"

I finally picked up Richard Matheson’s famous 1954 novel I Am Legend because I kept hearing how all three movie adaptations (The Last Man on Earth (1964), The Omega Man (1971), and I Am Legend (2007)) were good but not only missed the point of the book but fucked up the ending. Thousands of geeks can’t be wrong, so I set off to investigate.

What I found is a book that reads like a fast-paced thriller, but in which not much really happens. Robert Neville is the last survivor in a world filled with vampires. His house is a fortress in which he (impatiently) waits out his nights before staking as many vampires as possible during daylight. While this situation doesn't feel new (especially the detailed biological research on the cause of vampirism) that’s only because of how many books and movies have built upon Matheson’s creation. In other words, this is the original post-apocalyptic zombie text (the vampires might as well be zombies—to the point where Night of the Living Dead was inspired by it). Despite a (now) over familiar subject, IAL holds up well. It’s an emotionally honest work that depicts Neville’s struggles with apathy, anger, alcoholism and many other emotions resulting from his life of isolation and horror.

The ending is a twist that is so cynically powerful that I can see why movie execs are scared of it. (Spoilers!) By showing how Neville’s quest for “good” turns him into “evil” from other points of view, RM taps into an uncomfortable truth of human nature: that we’re all capable of the darkest deeds—while telling ourselves that we’re behaving altruistically.  And in a world ruled by vampires, Neville is guilty of the most heinous genocide. Now picture Will Smith or Charlton Heston committing these acts and becoming the poster boy of evil! The movies can’t (or don’t have the guts), and so entirely miss the point of Neville’s unwinnable scenario. After all, who among us could have handled Neville’s situation any differently? Few – if any – of us, I suspect, and so we’re forced to rethink all of Neville’s actions from the lens of the ending – not a comfortable experience.

I’m happy I read this book, although I have to admit to being bored at times; parts of Neville’s investigation take too long, and Neville and Ruth’s discussions are extremely dated.  But overall the book is a powerful touchstone for a lot of current popular culture – and it’s always good to go to the source rather than relying on the pale imitations. And you gotta love that ending!

Cross posted on Reading, Running and Red Sox

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Majesty of Saturn

Gordan Ugarkovic recently created an absolutely stunning composite image of Saturn.

You'll really be doing yourself a disservice if you don't go here and check out the incredible new high-rez shot of Saturn where you can see all of the cool details. Bad Astronomy runs down some of them:
"Cassini was high above Saturn to the north, looking “down” on the ringed world when it took these images. You can see the bizarre hexagonal north polar vortex, the six-sided jet stream flowing around Saturn. The subtle but beautiful bands mark the cloud tops of Saturn’s atmosphere. Unless I'm mistaken, the thin white line you see wrapping around the planet at mid-latitude is the remnant of a vast storm so huge it completely dwarfed our own home world of Earth. And if you look carefully (you can measure it!) you can see that Saturn is highly flattened, its equatorial diameter wider than through the poles."
Click through for lots more. Incredible stuff.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Ache of Marriage

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

- Denise Levertov

Friday, October 11, 2013

Clown Show in Buffalo

A few free minutes to entertain you with a Bills rant:

Last Thursday, EJ Manuel, the Bills valuable starting QB, didn't slide at the end of a run for some inexplicable reason and suffers a sprained knee. So what does the team do? They decide to promote a QB from their practice squad and name him the starter against an extremely tough Bengals defense. So wait. If Thaddeus Lewis was good enough to be a potential starter, then why hasn't he been the backup quarterback all of this time? What about our current backup - Jeff Tuel? Keep in mind this is a team who only keeps two QBs on the roster - if they didn't think "Tuel Time" was going to be the man, why not put him on the practice squad? I'm not really buying the explanation.

If that's not enough for you, last year, the Bills cut one of their most popular players - Brian Moorman, their long-time punter - in favor of a young guy. (That's right, the Bills have been so bad, many of the jerseys you see in the stands is of their PUNTER.) The only problem being that Shawn Powell sucked. So after an historically bad special teams day against Cleveland last week, they dump him and sign - wait for it - Moorman! Who is still a decent punter, despite being out of the league this year. But how is signing a 36 year old punter supposed to prepare the team for the mythical future in which the Bills actually are competitive?

And just so you don't forget, Jarius Byrd, our all-pro safety franchise player who has been quarreling with the team all season over his contract while showing up with plantar fasciitis in BOTH feet. He's been out all season. But just as he's getting healthy enough to play, all of a sudden NOW we're open to trading him?

I love the Bills but it does seem at times that it's being run by a bunch of clowns. In the meantime, our odds of having a winning season, much less making the playoffs, are getting dimmer and dimmer.