because, honestly, who doesn't enjoy writing about themselves?

Warren Ellis posted today on his morning.computer blog about his search for some widget or combination of tools that would, and I am paraphrasing, give him the functionality of some of the old-school blogging sites. As a long-time LiveJournal user, I remember the charming status/mood boxes and the way the site acted more like an online diary than anything we see these days.

Jenny Lawson, the Bloggess herself, took time out to ask people to link their blogs as a show of support for this fading and/or resurgent form of expression. She was spurred to do this by an article discussing writers returning to blogging after having moved on to other things.

[In this space I wrote a plausible explanation for why blogs evolved into social media and how the growing ubiquity of having an online presence changed the nature of what people wrote online, but it wasn’t what I wanted to discuss today, so I’m saving it for later. You’re welcome.]

It’s something that’s been on my mind as well. The old LIveJournal blog model was more suited to personal expression than anything social media has to offer (and I understand that this was not an unmixed blessing). It was, at least for me, a way to share a lot with a limited audience which I could control (privacy tools were much, much better than anything Facebook offers) as opposed to sharing a facet of a persona that has to be somewhat curated in the event that a future employer stumbles across it.

I really do miss the silly quizzes, the proto-memes, the just sitting down and writing about what I’m doing and feeling right now. I feel like this is part of whatever it is that both Ellis and Lawson are describing. The “status page”, which in the wrong hands (say, mine) would be horribly self-indulgent but could also be a lot of fun.*

In fact, I’ve been messing with that a little. Over on Fill In The Blank, I made of list of “facts about me expressed as musical genres”, which ticks both the “self-indulgent” and “fun” boxes. At least, it was fun for me. I’m less convinced that it’s of any interest to a general audience but that is precisely the difference between old blogs and social media, isn’t it? It’s the audience, and the awareness thereof.

Anyway, this is more of a “Wow, there are things about the old way that were pretty cool” post than a prediction that blogging will be a big thing. Even if it were to become more popular, the lay of the land is so different now that I don’t think it would ever serve the same function. So it goes.

-RK

* Way back in the early days of email, the company I was with used an messaging platform called GroupWise that was dodgy as hell, but it had these marvelous template which could be customized to a dangerous degree. I built my own that had drop down lists for my current mood, what I was listening to, and other highly unprofessional things of that sort.

I remember teaching one of our newer employees how to build a template, but instead of creating her own, she changed the company default template and added some highly inappropriate features to it. I don’t remember how we weaseled out of that one, but I was with the company for another ten years, so the cover story must have been convincing.

a pause, a deep breath

Today’s been one of those days that doesn’t feel like it’s anything other than a placeholder between other days. I think I’m a little under the weather, or maybe I was just ridiculously dehydrated. Either way, my equilibrium isn’t functioning at 100% and that means I’ve done a whole fistful of nothing today.

I’m about to embark on two projects, so I’m pulling in my sails a little so I can fence off some time to work on them. I’ve cut back on participation in social media and even installed one of those hateful nagging apps that will block certain sites (in my case, Facebook and Twitter) if I’m spending more than ten minutes a day on them. I’ve uninstalled a couple of games from my phone as well since they’re most go-to time wasters when I’m facing something I’m not prepared to face.

To get myself in the mood, I’ve been re-reading Warren Ellis’ Planetary, which might as well be scripture to me. I’ve been listening to early Radiohead and George Harrison solo albums and trying to get my head in the space it needs to be.

I’m not trying to be cool and be provocatively vague about what I’m doing; I just don’t want to go into too much detail before I’ve even started because my record of finishing thing isn’t great and the things I do finish are often vastly different than what they were intended to be.

So, this one’s probably more for me than for anyone else, and I’m not sure how much value it has in the light. As a Christmas icon once say: “They can’t all be winners, kid.”

-RK

These are a few of my favorite things

Howdy,

These remain difficult times, and are likely to for quite a while now. I simply don’t have enough in the tank to rage against all that is wrong with the current state of affairs, so I thought I’d share a few things that make me happy, or distract me, or are just interesting.

In case you were wondering, the image above has nothing to do with any of this. It just made me smile.

  1. The Crafsman

    If there is one thing on this list you check out, make it The Crafsman’s YouTube channel (linked above). The Crafsman, as you might imagine, makes videos about making crafts, but that description seriously undersells the appeal. He’s often compared to Bob Ross or Mr. Rogers because he’s got a wonderful, gentle voice and he’s relentlessly positive, but The Crafsman doesn’t really sound like either of them. His videos are genuinely informative and a delight to listen to. I cannot recommend him highly enough.

  2. Welcome to Night Vale

    WTNV has perhaps the easiest elevator pitch in the history of podcasts: H.P. Lovecraft meets NPR. If that description appeals to you, then go check it out right now. If it doesn’t? Then we’re just wired differently, I guess. WTNV at its best is gently weird and weirdly hilarious. The voice of WTNV is Cecil Baldwin, and I’m not sure it would work without him. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to.

  3. Q.I.

    Q.I. is a panel show hosted by Stephen Fry featuring four other comedians discussing trivia and general knowledge in the silliest way possible. It’s ostensibly a game show, although the scoring format is more about providing interesting answers (“Q.I.” stands for “quite interesting”) than obvious ones (which are almost always incorrect, anyway). No one skips from highbrow wordplay to vulgar puns as easily as Fry, but the guests make a game effort at keeping up.

  4. Keen shoes

    Comfortable and indestructible. They ain’t pretty. They’re not especially cheap. But if you want a shoe what will last you for a decade of hiking on rocks, or snow, or water, or whatever weird thing the universe throws at you, this is the only choice.

  5. Project Fi

    Ugh, Google, am I right? I’m not a big fan of the privacy-destroying monolith that seems to have its fingers in every aspect of my life. But, I will tell you this: Project Fi is the best cell phone service I’ve ever used. They have a “virtual SIM” thingie that allows them to use the best signal available from four different networks, so you will have signal in abundance. It’s cheap, too. My average bill is under $40 a month (it’s a pay-as-you-use-it plan, but with pretty generous terms). You do have to use one of only six phones, but there are some really good ones available.

  6. Korg Volcas

    (You have to scroll down a little to get to the Volca series.)

    These innocent little boxes, about the size of a Stylophone, are some serious kit for making music at very low prices. I have the Beats and the Sample and paid under $100 each for ‘em used. They’re not as powerful as some of the computer-based drum machines and synths, but there’s a tremendous satisfaction in twiddling with the knobs and getting crazy good sounds. I could talk for days about how fun they are and how they’re built to work together and with the Minilogue, but honestly? If you’re into making music, you really ought to get your hands on some of these. The value-to-fun ratio is off the charts.

  7. The Wicked + The Divine

    This comic, by Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen, is the pop-art masterpiece of the decade. It’s not my favorite book by this team (that would be Phonogram), but it’s the best and the most ambitious by a wide margin. Every ninety years, twelve young people become gods, manifestations of one or another ancient deity. It’s a (mostly) different mix every time through. After two years, they die. No one really knows why. That’s the setup. It’s a high-wire act from start to finish and…no, I’m not going to spoil it for you. Just enjoy the ride.

  8. The Battle of Polytopia

    This is a little 4x game for mobile devices. I downloaded it last February and immediately thought “Gee, this is way too simple to be interesting.” Danged if I’m not still playing it regularly. It doesn’t take terribly long to play, and the basics are super easy to pick up, but there are a ton of subtle wrinkles that give it an absurd amount of replay value. I love honing strategies to a fine edge, though, so your mileage may vary.

  9. Office Master Sit To Stand Work Stool

    Not the catchiest name, is it? After several decades of working in an office, my back was starting to feel the strain. I did a little testing and determined that I was most comfortable in a not-quite-standing position, with my butt on an angled stool and my legs still supporting some of the weight. I tried this with some conventional bar stools and, um, I broke a lot of conventional bar stools since the weight was all at the front of the saddle. I found this sucker online and it was exactly what I needed. People look at me funny now (I mean, they did anyway, but you get the idea), but I haven’t had any back pain from sitting in four years now.

  10. Yaupon

    This one’s a life-saver. I had to cut down on my coffee consumption, but I wasn’t going to completely give up on caffeine because, well, because I like caffeine. I didn’t even know what yaupon was before I tried it at the farmer’s market. I tasted a sample out of pity, but holy smokes, it’s good. It tastes like tea but without any of the bitterness, much the way cold brew tastes like drip coffee without the acid. It’s local, it’s sustainable, and it’s the only north American plant that has caffeine in it. You owe it to yourself to try it.

That’s it for now, because ten seems like a nice number to stop on. I just wanted to share some of the things that I like, that work for me, and make me happy. I hope one or two of them appeal to you, too. OK, I hope all of them do, but I don’t really expect that to be the case.

I’m babbling now, and it’s starting to get late in a post-daylight saving time sort of way. Good night, and sleep well.

-RK

Something small and good for big and bad times

This week has been terrible. The political scene is awful, there have been too many shootings (meaning “greater than none”), I have member of my family who are unwell and unlikely to get better, the owner of my favorite soccer team died in a helicopter crash…there just hasn’t been much to talk about that isn’t either sad or outrageous.

But…when we were cleaning out our storage room at the apartment, we decided to toss the old 10 gallon snail tank. It had been empty for about 6 months, but there were still bit of dirt and snail poop in it. When I was about to toss it into the chute, I found a tiny snail shell that had been lodged in a crevasse. It felt thin and dry and very worrying.

So, I took the shell back to our apartment, but the shell in a little ramekin, and added a little bit of water because you just never know with snails. They’re tougher than you’d think sometimes. And, wouldn’t you know it, the little gastropod came right out:

babysnell.jpg


I felt better about this one little fighter’s survival than I have about anything I’ve done at work in years. I don’t know what that means, but I’m just grinning ear to ear over this snail. Most of the lettuce leaf got monched and they’ve joined the other snails in the big tank for what we hope will be a long and happy life, inasmuch as the term “happy” applies to snails (and I like to think that it does).


In other snail-related news, we’re having a pets-in-costumes contest at the office this week. There aren’t many off-the-rack snail costumes out there, so my limited crafting abilities were put to the test. Plus, getting a snail to pose for a photo isn’t a sure thing, but fortunately, Baby Blink was up to the task:

blink2.png

I’m reasonably sure we won’t win the contest, but a lot of people got to see our lovely Blink being a show off and I’m happy enough with that.

Snails are such good little critters. They don’t harm anyone, they get along with each other, and there’s something very peaceful about the slow pace at which they live. When people can’t be bothered to be decent to each other, and when horrible things are happening to people you care about, spending a little time with snails takes some of the edge off.

-RK

Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness is one of the most ambitious 200-page books I’ve ever encountered. It’s fascinating, eye-opening, and a little frustrating. Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher (please don’t stop reading now, he’s not that kind of philosopher) with a strong background in science who’s given us a book that is about the evolution of consciousness, the various theories of how to determine whether or not a creature in fact has consciousness, and how all of this applies to the octopus. The frustrating part is that there’s no way to cover all of that ground sufficiently to satisfy my curiosity in just 200 pages.

The evolution of nervous systems and the theories as to how, where, and why consciousness arose are the meat and bones of the book. We’re reasonably certain now that cetaceans and birds exhibit behavior that indicates consciousness, but in terms of evolution, they’re all pretty close to where we are on the tree. All of the chordate nervous systems evolved in much the same way, so as unknowable as crows and whales are to us, they not put together that differently than we are.

That brings us to the octopus. Their branch of the evolutionary tree of life diverged from us quite some time ago. Their nervous systems, which are incredibly extensive, are nothing like our own. Nonetheless, the octopus behaves in ways that indicate consciousness. When you’re face to face with an octopus, you’re as close to encountering an alien mind as you’re ever likely to come.

The cuttlefish also gets a good deal of time in the book. They’re a relative of the octopus, and their behavior is perhaps less indicative of consciousness, but there’s enough there to leave the question open. And here’s the weird thing: The cuttlefish nervous system evolved completely separately from that of the octopus. So these unusual, extensive nervous systems evolved separately three times: In chordates, in the octopus, and in the cuttlefish.

Would I recommend the book? Oh hell yes I would. If you’re remotely interested in any of the subjects touched on above, you’ll probably love it. Just understand that it will likely leave you feeling unsatisfied in that you’ll want to know more about pretty much every subject Godfrey-Smith touches on.

Also, if you’re anything like me, you won’t feel so good about eating octopus.

-RK

Pieology

A month or so ago, Nicole and I were driving to the HEB on 51st and we passed a pizza joint called “Pieology”. I’ve never been there, but I know that it’s one of those “make your own pizza” places, sort of like a Mongolian BBQ of pizza. For some reason, a jingle popped into my head:

Make your own
pizza at Pieology.
If it sucks
you won’t get an apology.
Coz you’re the one who made it...
You’re the one who made it...
SUCK!


I’m not certain precisely why, but it was ridiculously catchy. I’d find myself humming it. I’d catch Nicole humming it (usually after I did, but still…). So, I decided to record it.

This turned out to be the most challenging thing I’ve recorded so far. It required a catchy, swinging drum line that I could have easily recorded using the Beatstep, but for some reason I used the motion sequencer on the Volca to do it and eventually figured it out. And then I found out that the sequencer doesn’t actually save the motion after you turn it off(I had to hit the “stutter” knob at exactly the right time to get the beat I wanted), so I had to do it again and record it immediately.

This being a short jingle, there’s really not much to it…unless you’re a hopeless TMBG fanboy and feel like you need horns, strings, bells, drum fills, and, for some reason, a synth solo. It was a weird recording. Normally I do a rhythm track, then record all the parts all the way through the song. This was more a matter of recording two-bar parts for each instrument and then copying-and-pasting them to the part of the song where I needed them. Not my normal process, but it worked OK.

  My highly-professional system of charting the tracks.

My highly-professional system of charting the tracks.

Then there was the matter of vocals. I am not a singer. When I sing, people usually think I’m trying to do a parody bad singing. Then, when the truth hits them, they give me a look that says “Aw, it’s great that you tried.” I played World of Warcraft for 8 years without ever speaking on my guild’s channel because I am just that microphone-shy.

So I bought a mic, a cheap condenser. Then I had to, um, sing. I wound up double-tracking the vocals and discovered that a little equalization works wonders, but I would still describe the end result as “I get what you were going for” as opposed to “good”. It was fun to give it a shot, though.

Anyway, the next step is to send the jingle, unsolicited, to the folks at Pieology. Nicole insists that the right way to do this is to transfer the jingle to cassette tape and send it over snail mail She’s more romantic than she let’s on. Having thought it over, I think she’s exactly right. Of course, I don’t have a cassette recorder, but hey, what’s one more electronic toy?

So, here in all its glory, is the Pieology jingle I wrote:


And, for the sake of completeness, here’s the full version which is more of a short song than a jingle:

I don’t expect I’ll be doing anything like this again, but it was a lot of fun to do and maybe I’ll finally get this jingle out of my head.

Probably not, though.

-RK


Kavanaugh and why I can't sleep tonight

I can’t sleep tonight because our country has gone mad and that sort of thing upsets my sensitive soul. I’ve been trying to avoid talking about the state of the state, but I don’t see any way around it tonight. It’s too much. So yes, this is yet another outsider commenting on the sad farce that took place in our nation’s capitol yesterday. If that’s not your thing, feel free to move along.


I’m going to start by asking you to suspend disbelief here. For the purposes of this initial discussion, I’m going to propose that, in that very narrow matter of whether or not Brett Kavanaugh should be confirmed to the Supreme Court, it does not matter whether or not Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations are true or not. Kavanaugh did enough to disqualify himself that, even if you were to find his denials credible, there is no reasonable way to draw the conclusion that he should be confirmed.

Bluntly speaking, Brett Kavanaugh lied during the hearings in such an obvious fashion that no one could credibly claim otherwise. His lies were insulting and unmistakable. The word “boffing” has an accepted meaning, and that meaning is not related to passing gas. “The devil’s triangle” is not a drinking game. Labeling yourself a “Renate Alumnius” is not a way to honor a friend you “hang out with”.

His explanations for these things were a slap in the face to the whole process. These are the kind of lies you tell when you don’t respect your accuser or the people who are going to vote on your confirmation. Everyone knew he was lying, and he didn’t care one bit. Everyone who votes for him today (and I fully expect him to pass committee and be confirmed sooner rather than later) knows that what he was saying was untrue and they don’t care either.

It’s a bit much, coming from a man who fervently believed that the phrase “I did not have sexual relations with that one” was enough to remove a sitting president, but don’t mistake that for irony. Irony lives in opposition to expectations. This is just crass realpolitik, rank hypocrisy, and precisely what one would expect for a man of Kavanaugh’s ilk.

I haven’t even discussed his temperament (volatile and angry) or his partisanship (which calls into question his ability to function as an impartial arbiter on the court), because these, too, aren’t necessary to disqualify him from the job. The bottom line is, regardless of whether or not you accept Dr. Ford’s testimony, Brett Kavanaugh has no business being anywhere near the Supreme Court.


Of course, Dr. Ford’s testimony does matter and I can’t imagine anyone watching the proceedings and not coming out of them with a stronger belief that she is telling the truth. Her testimony was immaculate. She provided precision where she could, and was honest as to where she couldn’t.

Contrast that with Kavanaugh’s testimony, which was riddled with ridiculous lies and inconsistencies, the vast majority of which had to do with his sexual history. If he couldn’t be honest about what the word “boffing” means, I don’t see any reason why we should presume he was honest about much else.

So, yes, I think her accusations are credible and his denials are not. Maybe that’s not fair, but when you lie as easily and as blatantly as Brett Kavanaugh? You lose the benefit of the doubt.


I’ll close this out with some speculation about what I see as the meta-thread running through these hearings. When I hear the Lindsey Grahams and Donald Trumps of the vociferously defending Brett Kavanaugh, I don’t hear men who really believe that Dr. Ford is falsely accusing him. I don’t even hear partisan hacks who are going to support “their guy” through thick or thin. I hear something much deeper and darker: I hear men of privilege who genuinely don’t believe that the things Kavanaugh is accused of doing are wrong.

I think way too many of these men standing up for Kavanaugh feel personally attacked by the accusations.

What I think, and again, I am speculating, but I am speculating with a great deal of “this rings true to me”. These men grew up treating women exactly the way Brett Kavanaugh is accused of doing and they’re thinking “We all acted like that in school, because that’s how ‘men’ act, and this is where we draw the line against women calling what they think of as normal boyhood behavior ‘assault’. I think they feel like, if what Kavanaugh did was sexual assault, then most of them are guilty as well.

A reach? It could be. But consider this: They could have withdrawn Kavanaugh from consideration, found another justice fresh of the Federalist factory floor, and very likely got the same sort of candidate without having to go through these hearing. Why did it have to be Kavanaugh? Why was he the line in the sand, the hill to die on?

I think, too, that this is why this is such an incredibly important moment for the feminist movement. As unlikely as it sounds, the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings have become a referendum on the matter of “boys will be boys” vs. “#MeToo”. It’s white (and let’s not kid ourselves about that) male privilege trying to stem the tide of accountability for their actions.

So, if Brett Kavanaugh is ultimately confirmed, not only are we stuck with a lifetime appointment for a mediocre man who has demonstrated amply that he has no business on the bench, it’s a symbolic slap in the face to anyone who has ever been sexually assaulted. They won’t be confirming Kavanaugh because they believe him; they’re doing it because they think he did it and they don’t think he did anything wrong.

And that, my friends, is why I can’t sleep tonight.




algernon

So, here’s the thing: I feel great, I mean like “the best I have felt in years”, but I’m not sure I understand or trust the reasons for it. The steroids? Sure, that could be it, but I’ve been on a prednisone taper before and it I don’t recall it making me feel anything other than normal. Is it getting over a really scary disease that’s driving me? That doesn’t seem right, does it?

Whatever it is, I feel light and energetic and happy and smart and even borderline-attractive. It’s nice. I’ve had a really great weekend, the best-feeling weekend I’ve had in ages. Maybe I’ve had some sort of low-grade ick dragging me down for months (years?) that’s been sapping my energy and making me live in a fog and this knocked the shit out of it and now I’m just back to a normal I only vaguely remembered.

Regardless, whether this is the new normal or if it’s just some temporary side-effect of some treatment, I’m enjoying it. I feel more present, too, more capable of concentration. Whether the sky will always be this blue and the wind this soft and the ground this warm or not, there’s not reason not to take a deep breath and just be happy to be right here.

(I’ve just been reliably informed that it’s dark out, there’s no wind indoors, and the floors in here are cold. So much for figurative language in this day and age.)


One of the highlights of the weekend was a visit to a new bookstore literally across the street from us. It’s not just any bookstore, it’s an Japanese bookstore/office supply store/pop culture extravaganza. It’s called Kinokinuya and it might just be my favorite place to go and give in to all of my wicked consumer impulse urges.

I’m trying to think of a good way to properly describe this place and I’m struggling because there’s not really a good point of reference. It’s a big place and the books may take up a third or so of it, making it about as big as the old mall book stores. The are all manner of writing utensils (I have never seen so many mechanical pencils), papers, notebooks, and accessories. There’s an entire Studio Ghibli section because it would feel weird if there weren’t. There’s an extensive selection of anime, plastic figures, plush figures, other toys, pins, temporary tattoos, reading glasses (swoon), and literally countless other ways to separate me from my money.

I picked up a little pocked notebook because I’d like to find out if I’m the kind of person that carries one of those around and makes notes on my clever musings and droll observations. I may not be, but it was an excuse to get a beautiful Horizon mechanical pencil. I may not be, but it’ll be fun to find out.

Nicole also encouraged me to get a Yamamoto Paper “paper tasting” kit to test which type of papers my fountain pen likes the best. Yes, it’s that kind of place, and I’m not sure how my life was ever complete without it.

  Shiny aluminum pencil! Oh, and real big spender on that notebook, Ridley…

Shiny aluminum pencil! Oh, and real big spender on that notebook, Ridley…

As a kid, I always loved office supply stores because, well, they were fun! I got that same buzz going in to Kinokinuya: I felt like a kid. If you’re in the neighborhood, or you have one in your home town, I cannot recommend it highly enough.


We had a little gathering over here on Saturday. The events which took place during the gathering will not be recounted here. If you believe you have heard rumor of any of said events, you are mistaken and that is a hill on which I am prepared to shed significant blood. Nothing of any importance happened, nothing was broken, no secrets were revealed, no, or at least very little, witchcraft was performed, most clothing that came in to our abode left the same evening (and mostly on the same person who originally wore it). It was not unlike most nights in any significant fashion.

The food was good.

Goodnight and sweet dreams,

RK

airbag

You know that feeling when you’re skidding out of control, or you blew a deadline, or it’s coming right for you! and you just narrowly avoid taking the hit. You’re unscathed when you could (and probably should) have been a bloodied mess?

It’s an exhilarating feeling, that sense of escape, of being back on the upswing. Beowulf Shaeffer pulled out of the spin into the neutron star and can see it diminishing into the GP hull-equivalent of the rear view mirror.

That’s where I am now. I’ve gone from being really, really not well to feeling incredible in less than a week. It turns out MRSA was involved, and that’s not one to joke with. My doctor didn’t fuck about and went with the right antibiotics and we killed it dead, but we did so right before things would have become Serious.

And now, that sense of release, of escape, of having cheated a deserved fate, plus some 60mg of prednisone a day, have left me feeling like everything is wonderful. My brain has worked better the last couple of days than it has in months. I’m even (gasp) productive at work. Who knew that was even in the cards?

This is, of course, not a sustainable model for improving my mood and my acuity. I’m in no hurry to do it again any time soon. My doctor agrees, so we’re working to prevent this going forward and to find alternatives for the steroids, which are marvelous in their efficacy, but they will eventually exact an unacceptable toll.

So, yay. I got lucky. It feels amazing. I will enjoy it for as long as it lasts, and do all within my power to ensure I don’t have to be lucky next time.

Silver linings

So, yes, what I posted yesterday was pretty unpleasant, but life isn't without its pleasures these days. This new apartment we're in has the most extraordinary views of, well, mostly sky, but it's a fantastic sky. The living room has an almost 180 degree field of view, meaning that was can see the old airport and the lights of the new airport to the east. We can see the west stand of the football stadium, the tower, and downtown to the south, and the TV towers on the hills to the west. 

And we get pretty decent sunsets, too.

  Google recommended a pretty extreme filter for this, but I think it came out ok without it.

Google recommended a pretty extreme filter for this, but I think it came out ok without it.

While I was basking in this marvelous sunset, Nicole called me to have me take a look at the other side of the sky, which was festooned in rainbow plumage. Again, not a bad view from the porch, eh?

rainbow.jpg

This is a relaxing place to live. It still feels more like a resort we're leasing than home, and that's not a bad thing at all. I'm sleeping better than I have in years for...well, I'm not sure why, but I am. Maybe it's orientation of the window in the bedroom with respect to the sunrise, maybe it's that we're keeping the room free of felines for most of the day. I really don't know.

Another little "huh" thing: The floors feel so different than those in our old first floor apartment. The solidity of the ground floor tiles, affixed directly to the concrete foundation, has been replaced by something with a little more give. It's subtle, but it's far more pleasant to walk barefoot on upper floors. 

Oh, and I'm still just a couple of minutes (6, to be exact) walk to the train station, which was a non-negotiable for us. It's funny to think that, when we first moved near a train station, I expected to ride the train once or twice a week and drive on other days. It's took maybe two days to become completely hooked on taking the train. After a year or so of riding, started carrying books to read as a way to alleviate the stress of checking email and because I like reading books. That initiative has worked out swimmingly. It's "found time" that I'm fortunate enough to have and to put to good use.

Which is all a long way of saying that, in spite of the fact that I look like a troll (which is a slight improvement on "Deadpool") and that I have a chronic condition the cure for which is nowhere in site, things really aren't bad. I appreciate all the support I received yesterday when I was writing about the worst of things; I just wanted to let y'all know that pretty much everything else? Pretty darned good.

-RK

Plague Days

Let's start this one off with a content warning for body horror descriptions. 

I was going to make this a P.S., but I wanted it right here at the top of the post: Nicole has been a goddamned angel of mercy this weekend. She's taken such incredibly good care of me and taken care of all the house things and even prodded me when I wasn't doing the best thing for myself. The fermented cabbage juice/probiotic was a bit much, but in the big scheme of things, it does nothing to reduce my gratitude. She loves me, even when my face is such a mess. I'm terribly lucky.

For those of you who haven't followed my general well-being with rapt attention, good on you. I'm presuming you have a rich, full life that in no way involves memorizing the peculiar ailments of strangers. However, a little bit of backstory is required for this to make any sense, so bear with me.

I have a Skin Thing. I can't put a proper label on it as three doctors have yet to make heads or tails of why my skin will just stop being skin and start being a collection of portals linking the dermis with the outside world. It started happening years ago and all we've determined with any certainty is that, while I am allergic to p-phenylene diamine, that alone doesn't explain what's going on. The allergist says it's a skin condition. The dermatologist says it is likely one or more allergies. The GP's guesses are best left unsaid.  The other thing is that my condition goes away for about 2-3 months after getting a steroid shot. So, that's what I've been doing to keep it in check.

This past Tuesday, I went in for my shot which is by now a routine. Wednesday and Thursday, I felt unusually warm and had started to develop tiny bumps on my elbows. By Friday evening, both arms were covered, as was my trunk and parts of my legs. More worryingly, my face had some of those tiny bumps and was slightly swollen.

Saturday was bad. By Saturday, my face resembled Deadpool's -swollen, bumpy, seeping, and....yuck. I contacted my dermatologist, who, suspecting a bacterial infection (steroids leave you prone to infections), put me on a pretty serious antibiotic; the kind you take with a meal every 12 hours like clockwork. 

Today was....worse. The whole of my face was covered in seeping gunk and the tried bits of it after they'd done their seeping. It was bad enough that I contacted my doctor again with one of the most appalling selfies I've ever taken. She regarded it as a Not-At-All-Good Condition and called in a prescription for some prednisone, which is, as they say in the business, serious shit.

So here it is Sunday night. I'm not going to work tomorrow for obvious reasons. I'll be in the doctor's office by 9 AM-ish after what I expect to be a poor night's rest. The tide seems to have been stemmed; I don't see my face or any other part of me getting worse. There's no improvement, either. The weird thing is that I feel fine. My skin is just garbage right now and I do not feel pretty. 

P.S. I'd intended to turn my enforced housebound state into some overly dramatic, sentimental music but alas and dammit, my audio interface seems to have completely stopped doing anything beyond powering up. My computer doesn't recognize the USB connection, and none of my instruments can make the line-level lights dance at all. It's under warranty, or it would be, had I registered it. We'll see what Behringer has to say about it. Maybe there's a magic reset switch, but I doubt it. Of all the soul-destroying events of the weekend, this was probably the worst. I just wanted to sit in front of my shattered interface and mumble "It's not fair....it's not fair." Oh well, at least my glasses still work.

Movin' on up

I've found it difficult to write while we're in the process of moving to a new apartment. My brain, body, and whatever evil little bit somewhere inside me that compels me to spill out what's going on in my life in this increasingly-archaic fashion haven't been in a state that allows me to sit down and write about it. I'm trying to steal little bits here and there when I can jot things down, but I've found that I'm seldom able to make sense of my notes, so here it is in one go. 


It turns out that I don't enjoy moving. It's a cataclysmic event that feeds me nothing but stress before, during, and...well, ok, not so much after, but you get the idea. It wrecks me physically and mentally and I may not be the dynamo of energy I used to be. I've heard about people who will pack and move your stuff for you, but that seems like an unthinkable luxury reserved for people who have made much better life decisions than I have.

That said, the new place is awfully nice. We're at the top of the not-especially-tall-but-still-the-tallest-building-in-the-area, so we get a great view, especially since the living room offers nearly 180 degrees of windows. It doesn't quite feel like home yet, but it's getting there. I think I'm gonna like it.

  The view from my desk ain't bad.

The view from my desk ain't bad.


I've just finished reading Henning Mankell's Sidetracked, which was an absolutely delightful read about a serial killer and the policeman (Kurt Wallender) who is trying to stop him. The plot is fine, I suppose. I don't really read that much crime fiction and that which I do, I don't read for the plot. The writing, and most especially the characterizations, are what make Sidetracked such a page turned. 

I've determined that what I really enjoy about crime fiction is the writing. It tends towards sparseness, but not in the "I'm going to be an ass about it" way that Hemingway and, sometimes, Cormac McCarthy write. There's not much else that tie Hammett, Chandler, and Mankell together: Hammett is the more playful of the three, Chandler starts out obviously influenced by Hammett but finding his own, more philosophical voice, later on. Mankell is several generations removed, but his style is recognizably similar to his predecessors, but it's more...human? Wallender is grumpy and makes mistakes.  Anyway, the lot of them are great fun to read even when I struggle to care about the crimes they're solving.


I'm late to the party on this, but Google Cloud Print is pretty magical, isn't it? I needed to figure out a way for Nicole to print to an old Brother printer from her iPad and it took something like 15 seconds to set up. That seems wrong; the central tenet of IT support is that printers are awful and difficult to share. This particular bit of functionality seems like it should be getting a lot more attention than it has.


I have a lot more, but it's not bubbling up to the surface right now, so I'll leave you with this. Lasagna is amazingly fun to make when you stop worrying about what a lasagna is supposed to be. We made a sorta-lasagna last night that I'm reasonably sure would earn me a failing grade from any Italian chef worth their while, but ya know what? It tasted great. Don't like ricotta (and I don't)? Don't use it! You want to make it with green chiles, chicken, and Alfredo sauce? Go for it! There's probably a metaphor in there somewhere, but I'm not about it. I mean this literally. Don't let any bossy people tell you what a lasagna is supposed to be because, if you make it the way you like it, it'll be awesome.

 

 

A little bit of this, a little bit of that

Well hello there. I've got a lot of little things on my mind right now and I'm not sleeping any time soon, so I thought that this would be a good time to unload a few of them. 

 

Tell The Machine Goodnight is a curious novel that I tore through as quickly as anything I've read of late. It's by Katie Williams, and it batted around my expectations like a cat playing with a catnip-filled toy. The inside cover description made me think of a Terry Gilliam-ish dystopia, but that's not really it at all. The first chapter left me thinking I had the rest of the novel neatly figured out, but I couldn't have been more wrong. 

I'm not certain what I think of the ending, but that's true of a lot of my favorite speculative stories. It's science fiction, but it's more so in the manner of The Twilight Zone than space opera, which, I should point out, was at its best when the endings were a little ambiguous. It's also nothing at all like The Twilight Zone. It's an interesting, thoughtful book and it's a great read. 


Speaking of The Twilight Zone, we watched one of the less-famous Richard Donner-directed episodes last night: "Come Wander With Me". Nicole pointed out just how pitch-perfect the casting was, and how this was so often the case with The Twilight Zone. The other thing that stood out were the production values and, yes, the direction. I've seen films that weren't as tightly constructed as "Come Wander With Me". It's a delight to see the craftsmanship involved in telling these stories, even when the stories themselves don't always hold up. The big downside of this episode? The song is an evil, evil ear worm. Don't say I didn't warn you.


We're going to be moving to a new apartment next week, so things are a little untidy around here. We're going to be staying in the same area; I'm pretty sure the distance between the front doors is around 50 yards. The new place is a little larger, a lot newer (we'll be the first occupants), and we're hoping the management and maintenance will be a little more to our liking. 

We'll won't be on the first floor anymore, which means we won't have our garden which, for all intents and purposes, has served more as a snail sanctuary than a proper garden. That was fine, as we weren't going to eat anything we grew. This left us with a bit of a dilemma: What to do with the little creatures who depended on us for food and shelter? Simply leaving would put them in a bad situation as snails are generally considered to be pests. 

You can probably guess what we decided. 

snail.jpg

A little bit of zucchini, some lettuces, and a cuttlebone and our new guests seem quite happy indeed. They're marvelous little creatures, very relaxing to watching and as gentle as you could want. Given the likely result had we left them, I'm certain we made the best choice for them in bringing them in. I hope they have lovely lives.


Maybe one of the reasons that I'm not sleeping so well is that I go "on call" tomorrow. "On call" is the worst. It's pitched as a benefit to the people who are part of the rotation. No, really. The line of thinking is "At least it's only one week out of four that you're expected to be available 24/7 if (when) something comes up." That's a fiction, of course, in two ways. One is that you're expected to be available at all times anyway, at least to some degree. In addition, it's not really "if something comes up". There's no making plans when you're "on call". No being away from your computer for more than an hour at the most, so no movies, fast food if you dine out, and no real weekend. It comes with the gig, and the gig is well-compensated, but that doesn't mean I'm a fan.


I recently re-played on of my favorite old PS2 games, Final Fantasy X. It was ported, largely successfully, to PC and I've been eager to see if it lived up to my memories. It did in almost every respect. The gameplay itself is not particularly challenging and it's possible, through a little judicious grinding, to remove most of what challenge there is. It's still fun, though. The "sphere grid" system for advancing the characters is ludicrous, beautiful, and kind of delightful. The combat is 100% turn based, so once you get your head around it, it's not especially difficult to get your tactics right.

Of course, Final Fantasy games are only tangentially about gameplay, and that's as true of FFX as any of them. You're playing a story, a story that's told with beautiful art, and with some wildly inconsistent voice acting. It all makes a sort of sense that would make you sound like a madman if you tried to describe it to someone, and it's deeply, deeply sad. The pacing is near-perfect and the ending will give you feels. The only bit that was different than what I remembered is that I had a key part of the story backwards in my head. It's no less melancholy than I recalled, just for slightly different reasons. And, honestly, it's just gorgeous to look at. Worth a play (or replay) if you're in to that sort of thing.


I've been dreaming of spending some time in a little cabin, somewhere remote, somewhere rainy, and taking a week to get my head on straight. It's cruel, then, that there's been a little unseasonable rain this weekend. Not enough to do much of anything beyond make it too humid to go outside, not that we were going to do much of that. There's packing to be done. In case there was any doubt in your mind, the cliche is true: It's not the heat, it is the humidity. 100 dry degrees is a cakewalk compared to 90 degrees and moisture in the air. 

I guess that's about it for now. One of these days I'll get back in the rhythm of writing shorter posts about a single thing. That's not going to happen until after we settle in at the soonest. 

Goodnight all. Sweet dreams.

-RK

 

Why you should read Why We Sleep

I recently finished reading Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD, and, while I'm hesitant to use the term "life-changing" if only because I just finished it, it was certainly eye-opening. I'll go so far as to say it's the best non-fiction book I've read this decade. I'll also say that you should immediately buy it and read it. 

I've always prided myself on my ability to operated on minimal sleep when necessary. I remember staying up for 72 hours straight when working and moving to a new home at the same time. I've stayed out til near dawn and then made it to work on time more often than I can remember. 

It turns out that this was a very, very bad idea and I'm pretty mad at myself right now.

I'd always known that sleep was important, but important in a vague sense, without any clear idea of the benefits beyond "not feeling sleepy anymore". That's exactly what this book brings to the table: The benefits of sleep. And whoa, are there a lot of them. So many that Aetna pays it's employees bonuses to get enough sleep. An insurance company thinks it's important enough that they will save money by doing this. Let that one settle for a bit.

The bottom line is that you can't really be considered healthy if you aren't getting enough sleep. Your immune system is harmed, you're more susceptible to cancer (!), you don't work as well, either in terms of creativity or quantity, you're unsafe behind the wheel, you lose your memories, you can't control your emotions, and....well, it's an awfully long list. 

The most heartbreaking parts are the sections on the effect of sleep loss on development, both pre- and post-natal and through the teenage years. And, unfortunately, you never catch up on sleep. Miss sleep and the you never get back what you've lost.

This is an informative book rather than one of "hard" science. It's accessible, and, if it gets a little repetitive with the litany against the dangers of sleep loss, it's well-written and never gets dull.  There's not very much in the way of math and the charts are pretty simple, so I didn't get lost the way I do reading, say, Hawking.

You may already be familiar with all of the information contained in Why We Sleep. I wasn't, and I bet some of you aren't either. I strongly commend this book. It has the potential to make your life better in concrete ways, and how many books can you say that about?

-RK

Gon Out Backson

It's been some while since I've posted anything here. That's primarily due to the fact that I've been enjoying my time on holiday. A sand beach and the smell of the surf are hard to compete with and...

You're not buying any of this, are you? I'll be honest this time. Watching the country spiral into darkness is taking a toll on me. I have a vague recollection of the Watergate era and this is so much worse that I don't believe I have the capacity to explain it. Breaking things goes so much more quickly than building them. We're now having to watch cherished, hard-fought victories discarded literally without a thought. 

It's not just the politicians, of course. The very worst of us feel emboldened to display their racism, misogyny, and...we need a better word than "homophobia", but you get the idea, without any sense of shame. They gave us the alt-right, gamergate, the sad and rabid puppies, and now comicsgate. It's largely the same people making the same arguments, trying to cloak their views in a poor imitation of rationality and in unscientific appeals to nature. I wrote a long post about comicsgate a couple of weeks ago and decided not to post it on account of the fact that I'm just tired of it. 

Work has managed to get its tendrils into my nights and weekends as well. I put in 4-5 hours today and likely will again tomorrow. I understand that, in part, this is because I let it do so. It's also just a matter of there being a lot of work to do and not terribly many people to do it. It happens, it's part of the gig, but it's one more thing just wearing me out.

One of our snails passed this week, too: Poor little Lucky. Lucky had a tough life, surviving unbeknownst to us outside of the tank without any food or care. He was less than a centimeter long when we found him and brought him in to the tank. Tough little guy, The snail groups warn you not to get attached to the runts because they're not going to live that long, but you don't always get to choose what you get attached to, do you? Poor guy. I hope he had a good life. 


I did manage to get a song in the can., but, appropriately, it's a 5 minute drone that's essentially one note and a fractured drum line.  It's not especially musical, but I'm pretty happy with the sounds.

I'll write more about it later, but I'm currently reading Matthew Walker's Why We Sleep and, halfway through, I'd say I've probably learned more important and interesting information that I have from any other book. The TL/DR would be: "Sleeping is important. It affects the health of your mind and body in ways you aren't aware of, and you need 8 hours of sleep every night. Yes you do. No, really, you're not special. Get your sleep."
 

Which is exactly what I'm going to do now. Good night all.

-RK

Books: Past, Present, and Near-Future

Read (past tense):

So, you love Trainspotting as a motion picture, I’ll wager that you’ll find the book worth a read as well. In some ways the film improved on the book; the cast is cut down to a more manageable level by combining the stories of multiple characters into the primary four (or five, if you count Diane and I most definitely do).

A word of warning, though: The book is significantly rougher than the film and that is a bar of significant height. Begbie is more violent, Sick Boy is skeevier, Renton is even more emo, and Spud? Well, Spud’s a mate. Sadly, Diane has but a single chapter, but it’s the one you’d expect.

The vast majority of the book is famously written in Scots’ dialect, something that could easily have come across as a distracting stunt. I didn’t find it in the least bit difficult to follow. There are some slang terms I had to look up, but there’s a glossary to help out and I imagine you’ll use it far less than you’d expect.

It’s an angry book, full of life, but it’s the life people with no futures choose to live, so it’s horrifying as well. Heroin, of course, figures heavily but you’d be missing the point if you said the book was about heroin or even junkies. It’s about how people react to a hopeless situation. I loved it, but I loved the movie and I imagine I’ll love the musical whenever Irvine Welsh decides to go for his EGOT.

Re-Reading:

I'm about 3/4 of the way through my second go round with Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing. It's a beautiful book, as much a fable as it is a novel, and featuring a good deal more Spanish dialogue than I remembered. The pacing is...let's call it stately. Elegiac? It's slow, ok? But that's the right pace for the story.

McCarthy's dialogue reads like a guy who read Hemingway and thought "way too verbose", but his descriptions of the southwestern badlands are haunting and dense. He's one of the few "western" writers who can tell a story that (and I hate myself for saying this) transcends the genre.

One interesting thing McCarthy has in common with Neil Gaiman is that some of the best parts of the book are the stories within stories within stories. It's a difficult device to pull off without taking the reader out of the story, but when it comes off, it's brilliant. 

This novel, like many of his, is a little cold, a little distant, and a lot of harsh, but it's a hell of a book. 

Going to read next:

I finally, finally found a science fiction short story collection I've been seeking for a decade or so now. I read it back in the mid-80s and there were a couple of stories in it which left an unusually vivid imprint in my memory. The problem? I couldn't remember the name of the collection, the names of the stories, or the author.

Even with the aid of the internet, I didn't have much luck. I thought it might be a collection by Frederik Pohl, so I've been combing through his collections at Half Price Books without seeing anything that seemed familiar. Grrrr. 

A couple of weeks ago I finally found a combination of search terms to find one of the stories: "The Martyr". Aha! That, in turn, lead me to the author, Poul Anderson (I was close, dammit!), and to the title of the collection: The Gods Laughed. When I saw the cover, I knew I'd found it. Huzzah.

No Half Price in town had a copy, and it seems to be out of print, but no worries. The internet came to the rescue once more. I now have a copy and look forward to re-reading it and probably discovering that it wasn't nearly as good as I remembered. I'm willing to take that risk. 

In case you're wondering the other story from this collection that stuck with me was called "Soldier From the Stars". Funny thing: These two, along with a couple of William Gibson stories from the Mirrorshades collection, are the most haunting sci-fi short stories I've read and three of the four have a common premise: Humanity ain't at the top of the galactic food chain. I should probably ask my therapist if that means anything, huh?

-RK

Old Five and Dimers - Fathers Day 2018

Let me tell you a good story about my father. I may have mentioned this at another time, but what good is a story that's only told once? This is a good one, I promise.

My father and I had pretty significant disagreements throughout most of this century, but I never once lost my respect for him and his integrity. He was, to as great a degree as anyone is, a man of his word and would go to unreasonable lengths to do what he believed was right. I could cite dozens of examples, but I didn't even learn of the best one until he was nearly gone.

When my parents were divorced, my mother hadn't worked for several decades and, as such, her earning power was somewhat limited. The divorce decree included child support as well as alimony. The amount of the alimony was tied to mom's salary: When she received a raise, the alimony would be reduced by the amount of the raise. This, of course, meant that her earnings were capped until the alimony was eliminated.

One night, after receiving a raise and after a couple of glasses of brandy at a company happy hour, she called my father to give him the good news: "Congratulation. You got a raise." she told him in what I presume was a snide tone of voice. Dad was silent for a second and then responded by saying "You're right. This isn't fair."

I'll be honest, I'm not sure if they had the decree reworked or if they just handled it themselves, but the end result is that he agree to split any raise she received. If she received a $100 raise, the alimony would only drop by $50 and she'd also be $50 to the good. 

He didn't have to do that; the only reason for reworking the deal was his sense of right and wrong which, if I'm honest, was a good deal sharper than my own. That was my dad. This sense of right and wrong got him cheated in business more times than I care to share, but it never changed him. He was a good man in that he could invariably be counted on to act on his beliefs and you can't ask much more than that.

-RK

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley

Our annual-ish 1,100 mile pilgrimage to Marfa, way out in the middle of nowhere, the specific part of nowhere in the trans-Pecos high desert of west Texas, did not go precisely as planned this time around. In fact, the cartographically-minded amongst you might have picked up on the fact that the drive from Austin to Marfa is ~430 miles and, thus, the entire trip would fall comfortably short of 1,100 miles. Very observant of you to pick up on that. Why so many extra miles? That's a very good question.

Our car is approaching its third birthday and our battery recently died on us (I may have left the door ajar), so we thought it wise to have it replaced when we changed the oil. The folks at the shop informed us that the battery wasn't that bad. It was right on the edge of needing replacement, but when we said we were going out into the desert, they agreed that it would be prudent to make the change. 

We hit the road early, by our standards, getting on the freeway before 6:00 AM and pretty much flew out I-10. For some reason, this drive feels as short or shorter than the 200 mile slog up to Dallas. Maybe it's because we're going to our magic hideaway in the middle of nowhere, or maybe it's due to the fact that, once we hit Junction, the terrain is hilly and interesting for the entire trip. 

We wound up getting to El Cosmico well ahead of the 3:00 check-in time, so we goofed around the town and hit up our favorite breakfast/lunch spot, Marfa Burrito. It's cheap, it's flavorful, the coffee is free, and no English whatsoever is spoken. There are multiple autographed photos of Matthew McConaughey eating there hanging on the walls. It's that kind of place, in a good way.

When we returned a little after 3:00, our tent still wasn't ready. We sat in the main building, which isn't air conditioned but at least has fans and shade, bought some souvenirs, drank some coffee, and moved all our stuff to the tent when it was ready at 4:30. It was too hot to even think of grilling, so we headed off to the grocery store to get some noms for the evening, and then took some pictures of decaying buildings near downtown.

plant8.jpg

And then the car wouldn't start. 

This was precisely what we were trying to avoid. Fortunately, a local was able to help us push start it, but we were scared to turn it off again. We drove around town a little and then figured a little highway driving would be the best way to get the battery charged up again. We headed south and passed a border patrol check-point, which meant we were gonna have to stop on the way way back. 

Heading north again, we pulled over and spoke to the shaggy teenager in the booth while Paul Blart (Nicole's description, with which I concur) circled our car with his "probable cause" dog. He saw Nicole's hair and the El Cosmico sticker, gave the dog's collar a tug, and the dog went nuts. We were asked to pull over so he could search our car. Fortunately, we were able to convince him to let us keep the engine lit. 

We sat on a bench next to a younger woman who was playing good cop to Blart's bad 'un. He asked us if we were carrying any drugs, or if I smoked marijuana (a question that drew genuine laughter from us) and went so far as to say that he couldn't arrest us if we did have any drugs. We chatted comfortably with the woman while he did a half-assed search of our luggage. The dog stayed perfectly calm since Blart wasn't tugging on his collar, and we were sent on our merry way.

We made it back to El Cosmico around sundown, parked the car, tested the starter, and..pffft. Nothing. This was precisely what we'd gone to considerable length to avoid and, I gotta tell you, it's pretty hard to enjoy a remote paradise when your car is blorked. Grrr.

The tent itself was lovely. We decided to stay in a tent for one night before moving to our favorite trailer. It was, however, more of a winter setup than a summer one. It had a fire pit, no breeze, and (obviously) no AC. We might have enjoyed it more without the specter of "what the fuck are we gonna do about the car?" hanging over our heads.

tentinside.jpg

We slept in about as late as we could, which is to say, until 6:00 or so, got some coffee, and formulated a plan. We called the roadside assistance that's included with our car insurance to get a jump. Unfortunately, they had to come in from Marathon, about an hour away. While we were waiting, we called Mazda warranty services. When an old battery and a new battery die in short order, and when the battery won't charge with driving, that sounds like an alternator issue, or maybe even a slipping belt. Both of those things should be covered under our warranty, so we figured we'd be better of getting to a Mazda dealership than trying to find a mechanic in Marfa or, more likely, Alpine. The Mazda folks agreed, and said that they could tow us to the nearest dealership....170 miles away in Odessa. 

Well, crap. 

When they guy came to jump the car, we talked to him about what was the likely culprit and he agreed with our diagnoses. We decided that waiting on a tow truck and then riding in the cab for 3 hours was more of a buzzkill than we could handle, so we formed a bold plan: We would drive the car from Marfa to Odessa and hope like hell the engine didn't stop the entire trip. Did we have to stop for gas? Yep! We got away with it, though, and made it to the Odessa dealership, Sky Mazda, by mid-afternoon. 

We left the car with them and they loaned us a new SUV to drive home. Let me tell you a little about the drive from Marfa to Odessa. You know how I said driving to Marfa from Austin seems shorter than it is? Well, this one seems so very much longer. Once you get north of I-10, the scenery turns to flat, scrubby, and ugly. It's interminable. There's nothing to recommend it, no highlights, just nothing at all except for the occasional oil rig. Avoid it if you can.

When we got back to camp, we were in for another fun surprise: The trailer we thought we'd reserved was not the one we got. We've been in the glorious Battleship for our two previous visits, with its beautiful writing desk and leather sofa and just general awesomeness. This time, we were placed in the Imperial Mansion, which is a similarly-sized trailer but it's a completely different feel. No desk, but instead a second bedroom in the back with a single bed. It'd be great for families travelling with a kid, but we just closed it off to save the AC which wasn't up to the task of keeping the trailer livable. It was so hot, we put towels over all the windows and ran the fans over bowls of water to try to get the inside temperature under 90.

evap.jpg

On the plus side, it was perfect weather for chilled soup, and Nicole had the genius idea of bringing gazpacho makings with us. She blended up the tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, peppers, and spices, and we added some olive oil, sherry vinegar, and salt, and wound up with....some awfully good soup. 

The next day was spent doing a whole lot of nothing while we waited to hear what was wrong with the car. They weren't able to even look at it until midday and, when they did, I didn't much like what I heard. The battery, the new one we'd purchased only a few days earlier, was so dead that they couldn't even test the car. We'd have to buy a new one before they could even run any tests. Yay. We agreed because, hell, what else could we do? Right before closing, we called them back and the dealership had determined that the battery was the only thing wrong. The shop had installed the wrong size battery and replacing it with the correct battery solved everything.

On the plus side, Lauren and Stuart arrived that evening and were in the (much better) trailer right next to us, the Kozy Coach. Everything got cooler, both literally and figuratively, when they showed up. We enjoyed some more gazpacho, some wine, and some good conversation before hitting the hay. We'd hoped that we could keep the loaner car an extra day so that we could just drive to Odessa sort-of on our way home and pick up our car then. That was a no-go, so we were going to have to drive to Odessa and back again on Thursday.

Not much to report regarding that second trip. Doing that trip twice in three days did not improve it in any way. I will say that the folks at Sky Mazda are nice as heck and we really appreciated their being pleasant throughout this whole mess. We got our car back, headed back to Marfa once again, got pulled over for speeding (81 in a 75), but didn't get a ticket, making this one of the least eventful trips of the week.

Thursday night was highlight of the trip, so much so that I'd even go so far as to say the whole trip was worth it just for Thursday night. We met Lauren and Stuart at El Campo where they were getting tattoos the old-school way by Slowpoke Marfa. We bought a couple bottles of wine, got a little silly, tipped the ridiculously good singer/guitarist, and had a marvelous afternoon. Then, they took us to dinner at LaVenture at the St. George hotel. It was pretty terrific, even though some drunk fool (me) left his hat at the bar.

All four of us retired back to our trailer where we just sat around in the near dark telling stories and secrets and laughing and singing and goofing around with the synth I brought (the Minilogue is absurdly portable) and more laughing. It was so good, in fact, that I somehow avoided the hangover I so richly deserved.

We packed up early on Friday and headed back. Not much to tell about that. We had breakfast at The Water Stop, which has great roasted chicken with tahini dipping sauce that will give you the foulest burps on the planet. We didn't have any cash, so we had to hit the bank's ATM to tip our housekeeper. That turned out to be fortuitous since we left shoes and several of my shirts in the trailer. Derp.

  Entering Alpine, TX from the west on Highway 67 from Marfa, a view we saw way too many times over the course of our trip.

Entering Alpine, TX from the west on Highway 67 from Marfa, a view we saw way too many times over the course of our trip.

So that was our big vacation for the year. We both felt like butt when we got home, having contracted a cold or some other, similar malady. I may have just exhausted myself trying to hold my shit together, broken down in the desert. There's certainly a romance to getting away from it all, and I'm eager to do it again. But..maybe we rent a car or take the train next time.

Genesis, Three Sides Live (10/10)

10 all-time favorite albums (as if I could limit it to ten), in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.

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A live album? And not a particularly well-regarded one? What gives? Well...we'll get to The Real Reason shortly. For now, let's just consider it for what it is: A well-curated greatest (recent) hits album with some performances that surpass the studio versions. Genesis were an unusual band in that their two live-only members (guitarist Daryl Stuermer and drummer Chester Thompson) added tremendously to their overall sound. The extended instrumental section of "Abacab" is a perfect example of this-it's a much bigger, fuller song than it is on the studio album.

The original U.S. version of this record featured a non-live side consisting primarily of the U.K. EP release "3x3". "Paperlate" was an extremely Phil Collins-ish single, which is great, but it's "You Might Recall" that really stands out among the studio tracks. The U.K. release, which is the only version still available, had four live sides, but the fourth was confusingly from an earlier tour. For once, it's the U.S. version you want.

Ok, so why is this album so important to me? This was the, um, genesis of my love of the sound of synthesizer-based melodies, especially with huge drums behind them. "Behind The Lines" and "Dodo" blew my mind, but it's the medley between "In The Cage" and "Afterglow" that still gives me chills:

The life-changing bit starts right at 8:00 but hey, it's all good. 

This album sent me down a long, expensive, frustrating, but ultimately thrilling path of "trying to learn to play synthesizers". I'm still not good or anything, but that's not really what it's about. I love playing with these marvelous toys, and it's all because of this album.

P.S. If you think I'm stopping at 10, you don't know me very well, do you?

Ambulance LTD, LP (9/10)

10 all-time favorite albums (as if I could limit it to ten), in no particular order. Albums that really made an impact and are still on your rotation list, even if only now and then.

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If there's one album on this last that you take the time to listen to, this is the one I'd recommend. I'd never even heard of this band when I went to see a SxSW showcase at Red-Eyed Fly. I was there to see Stellastarr*, who were excellent, but it was the band who went on before them who really blew me away. They played a spectacular set and closed with an instrumental that built into a locomotive of guitar-pop goodness.

Based on the band order listed on a sheet of paper, I assumed I'd seen The Unicorns. It wasn't until I found a band listing in a newspaper and checked out the music on...was it YouTube then? I'm not sure, that I learned the band I'd seen was Ambulance LTD. Bought the album the next day and it's been in heavy rotation since.

This is, start to finish, about as close to perfect as any album I've ever heard. Every song is wonderful (assuming you like indie guitar pop). It wanders between dreamy, folksy, straight-ahead rock and even a hint of post rock with an ease that shouldn't be possible on a debut album.

Unfortunately, it was also their last. Label troubles ensure that we would get only one more EP out of Amulance LTD (the good but not perfect "New English") and then nothing more. The singer, songwriter, and guitarist Marcus Congleton can't perform as Ambulance LTD or use the band's name for promotional purposes. He's currently a member of Drug Cabin, along with ex-Pretty Girls Make Graves' Blake Thelen. Every now and again, you can hear some of that Ambulance spark in the music, but it's not LP. In fairness, nothing else this decade is.