Saturday, December 31, 2011

UFC 141: How we fared

Last night's UFC PPV event was a lot of fun, though as we feared, many of the fights went to decisions.

As I noted yesterday, we disagreed on only one picks, so we each had only one chance to win. That chance vanished when one of the fighters, Matt Riddle, proved to be sick and unable to fight. Because we agreed on all the other fights, I'll just report on how we both did.

Let's begin as usual with the preliminary matches, all but one of which we ultimately got to see.

Manny Gamburyan vs. Diego Nunes

We expected Nunes to win via a combination of better striking skills and decent take-down defense, and that's basically how the fight played out. Gamburyan was a game competitor, and he won the second round, but in the end Nunes had enough to score the decision victory.

Dong Hyun Kim vs. Sean Pierson

This second fight also played out almost exactly as we expected it would, with Kim grinding out the decision victory. The one change from our script was that Kim didn't work much for take-downs and instead won via superior striking.

Luis Ramos vs. Matt Riddle

Our only disagreement, and Riddle has to spoil it by getting sick. Ah, well.

Efrain Escudero vs. Jacob Volkmann

The one fight we didn't get to see also went as we predicted. Volkmann was simply too much for Escudero, taking him down and smothering him for two rounds. From what I've read, Escudero came back in the third round, but it was too late.

At the end of the preliminaries, we were a perfect 3-0!

We caught the next two fights on Spike TV.

Danny Castillo vs. Anthony Njokuani

At the risk of sounding both repetitive and egotistical, this was another fight that we nailed perfectly. Castillo took down Njokuani over and over in route to a split-decision victory. I don't know which judge gave Njokuani two rounds, but he or she was watching a different fight than I was.

Ross Pearson vs. Junior Assuncao

Another fight that went to decision, and another correct call for us. Pearson was too much for Assuncao, though Assuncao fought well and had moments in which he looked quite dangerous.

We entered the main card a perfect 5-0 and feeling good about our picks.

The PPV event brought us the big five bouts.

Nam Phan vs. Jim Hettes

That feeling ended with this fight, where we were spectacularly wrong. We expected Phan to win, but instead Hettes utterly dominated him. It went to decision, but the judges called it 30-25, 30-25, and 30-26, making it the most lopsided UFC decision I can recall. Phan only avoided a finish through utter toughness. We were now 5-1.

Alexander Gustafsson vs. Vladimir Matyushenko

We expected Gustafsson to win, and he did, though more convincingly and quickly than either of us expected. With a knock-out in the middle of the first round, Gustafsson has definitely advanced in the light heavyweight ranks.

Jon Fitch vs. Johny Hendricks

Speaking of moving up, Johny Hendricks did just that as he dispatched Jon Fitch with a knockout just 12 seconds into their fight. Everyone knew Hendricks' right hand was powerful, but his left did the trick in this fight. For several seconds, Fitch literally didn't know what hit him. UFC president Dana White has to be happy to have a new contender at 170 pounds.

We were not happy, however, to have called this one wrong. It left us 6-2.

Nate Diaz vs. Donald Cerrone

Wow, were we also wrong on this one! "Cowboy" Donald Cerrone looked sharp for about the first two minutes of the fight. From then on, Nate Diaz utterly and completely dominated him. At times, it appeared as if every single Diaz punch was landing. Diaz's boxing was on a completely different level from Cerrone's. Given how great Nate Diaz looked in his last fight against Gomi and how amazing he was in this one, he may finally have solidified his game. He certainly has to be considered a contender at 155 now. We were down to 6-3.

Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem

We both said this fight would probably finish in the first couple of minutes, and at the 2:26 mark, it was indeed over. Unfortunately, we both picked Lesnar to win via take-down and subsequent dominance. Instead, Brock never shot once, Overeem beat him up with knees, and Brock turtled and waited for the ref to stop the fight. Brock looked like a man who had come to collect a paycheck, which he certainly did. After the fight, he announced his retirement from the UFC.

We ended the night a disappointing 6-4, over .500 but just barely.

As always, don't rely on us for betting advice!

Friday, December 30, 2011

UFC 141: Kyle and I pick 'em

Tonight's UFC PPV event features a fight between two of the biggest and strongest men in the sport, Brock Lesnar and Alistair Overeem. Kyle's visiting, and we are, of course, watching the fights, so we thought we'd make one final set of fight picks for 2011.

As always, we start with the preliminary matches, which may not end up being broadcast anywhere other than on Facebook.

Manny Gamburyan vs. Diego Nunes

Mark: For Gamburyan to win, he has to take down Nunes. Nunes will use kicks and strikes to make that very difficult and ultimately to secure the win.

Kyle: This is how stacked the UFC 141 card is: Two of the best Featherweights in the world, both arguably in the top ten, both of whom have beaten former champion Mike Brown, are fighting in a match that isn't even going to be televised. Nunes came up short in his last fight against Kenny Florian. Gamburyan has dropped two in a row, first a title shot against Jose Aldo, and then a close decision against the always-game Tyson Griffin. My guess is that Gamburyan isn't going to be able to take Nunes down, and Nunes has the reach and technical striking skill to punish Gamburyan standing. Look for Nunes to hand Gamburyan his third loss in a row.

Dong Hyun Kim vs. Sean Pierson

Mark: Kim is going to grind away at Pierson with strikes and take-downs and suffer very little damage in the process. In one of the evening's more one-sided fights, Kim will win handily, though probably by decision.

Kyle: Kim and Pierson both have very impressive records, but Kim's includes wins over Nate Diaz, Matt Brown, and Amir Sadollah. Pierson hasn't beaten any opponents that notable. Kim's going to be a big step up in competition for Pierson, and I expect the Korean judoka to be more than he can handle. Dong Hyun Kim for the win.

Luis Ramos vs. Matt Riddle

Mark: The oddsmakers are leaning toward Riddle, but I'm going with Ramos via better wrestling. Expect him to make it a long night for Riddle and grind out the victory.

Kyle: Riddle's the younger man and has a five-inch height advantage over Ramos. That should be enough to give him the edge he needs in the striking department. Riddle for the win.

Efrain Escudero vs. Jacob Volkmann

Mark: Escudero took the fight on short notice and will regret that decision. Volkmann will take him down repeatedly and emerge the victor.

Kyle: Despite winning season eight of The Ultimate Fighter, Efrain Escudero was cut by the UFC after missing weight and making poor showings in several fights. He's gone 5-1 in other organizations since he was cut, and an injury to Volkmann's scheduled opponent, T.J. Grant, has given Escudero a second chance in the big show. Don't expect it to last. Volkmann has beaten better fighters than Efrain Escudero, and he should be able to send his opponent packing back out of the UFC.


The long relationship between the UFC and Spike TV is ending after this year, when the UFC moves to Fox and its various stations. For this event, however, Spike is still televising two undercard fights.

Danny Castillo vs. Anthony Njokuani

Mark: Anthony Njokuani is a great striker who's fun to watch, but Danny Castillo knows that as well as anyone, so he's not likely to spend much of the fight on his feet. Njokuani hasn't shown much take-down defense, so I expect him to spend most of the match on his back wishing he were standing. The result will be a win for Castillo, probably by decision.

Kyle: Castillo is taking this fight on three weeks notice, after an injury to Njokuani's previous opponent, Ramsey Nijem. That said, Castillo has looked a lot more impressive than Nijem in his last few outings. Look for him to use his superior wrestling to tie Njokuani up and smother his Muay Thai. Castillo by wrestle and grind.

Ross Pearson vs. Junior Assuncao

Mark: Pearson was undersized at 155 but still did pretty well there. He should fit very nicely into the featherweight division. Junior Assuncao is a decent fighter, but Pearson should have the edge in most areas. Pearson for the win, probably by striking.

Kyle: Ross Pearson is awesome. Expect him to turn this into a brawl and bludgeon Assuncao senseless with his hands of stone.


To see the top five fights, you have to buy the UFC PPV.

Nam Phan vs. Jim Hettes

Mark: Hettes overcame his Octagon jitters to beat Alex "Bruce Leroy" Carceres in his first UFC appearance, but he didn't look very impressive doing it. Now, he's taking a step up in competition. He certainly can win by submission if Nam Phan gets sloppy, but that's his only way to win. Phan can win on points or by striking, and as long as he stays off his back, he should be fine. This fight won't be very exciting, but Phan should walk away with the decision victory.

Kyle: Jimy Hettes, who struggled on the feet against novice striker Alex Caceres in his last fight, is going to find himself in deep water if he stands and trades against Nam Phan. His best chance is to drag Phan to the ground and submit him, but Phan has enough grappling skill to make that a difficult proposition. Phan by knockout.

Alexander Gustafsson vs. Vladimir Matyushenko

Mark: I have a soft spot for the resurgent Matyushenko, in part because of his classic Russian demeanor and in part because he has one of the least glamorous nicknames in fighting, "The Janitor." He's also on a roll, having won four of his last five fights--with the only loss coming to Jon Jones. All that said, Gustafsson is younger, stronger, a better striker, and still improving enough in his wrestling to stay off his back most of the time. Those skills should let Gustafsson emerge with the victory.

Kyle: My heart says Vladdy, but my head says that Gustafsson is younger, has better reach, and is a more technical striker. Matyushenko's best chance is going to be to try to get Gustafsson to the ground and beat on him, but that's going to be hard to do to the man who beat Matt Hammill into retirement. Gustafsson for the win.

Jon Fitch vs. Johny Hendricks

Mark: Watching Jon Fitch fight is frequently as exciting as watching instructional training videos, but it can also be as informative. The man is a wrestling and grinding machine. Hendricks also has great wrestling credentials, and he's a better striker, but he isn't ready for the relentless, slow beating that Fitch will put on him. It'll take all three rounds, and it'll be another decision victory that Dana White will hate, but this one will end with Fitch's hand in the air.

Kyle: Jon Fitch has lost one fight in the last nine years, and that was against dominant welterweight champ George St. Pierre. Hendricks has good wrestling chops, but he's never shown the same command of MMA grappling that Fitch has. Look for Fitch to impose his will, wear on Hendricks, and do just enough damage to keep from being stood up. Fitch by yet another decision.

Nate Diaz vs. Donald Cerrone

Mark: Since his departure from the WEC and his commitment to Greg Jackson's camp, Donald Cerrone has been on a tear. Nate Diaz has also been doing well and improving his game, particularly his striking. Cerrone, though, is a better Muay Thai fighter and a stronger grappler. Diaz has the edge in submission skill, but unless Cerrone gets sloppy, he should be able to get away from Diaz should he make the mistake of staying too long on the ground with him. This one should be very entertaining but end with Cerrone moving into the top tier of the UFC's lightweights.

Kyle: In the battle of the UFC bad boys, Cerrone looks to cap a dominant year that's already seen him rack up four UFC wins. Diaz has been less consistent, both in his choice of weight class--he goes back and forth between lightweight and welterweight--and in his win/loss record, as he's gone 1-2 so far this year. Cerrone just keeps getting better, and Friday should give him an opportunity to show his new skills, using his heavier hands to batter Diaz on the feet and earn the win.

Brock Lesnar vs. Alistair Overeem

Mark: As Kyle and I have discussed, this fight will go one of three ways: Overeem tags Lesnar hard in the first two minutes and follows up for the knee-and-fist TKO victory, Lesnar takes Overeem down in the first two minutes and follows up for the ground-and-pound or submission victory, or the two fighters make it out of the first round and then spend twenty more minutes looking like two gassed old men flailing at one another. Though the oddsmakers favor the first outcome, I'm going with Brock by beastly take-down and subsequent finish.

Kyle: When 530 pounds of lean beef collide in the Octagon Friday night, one of three things is going to happen: Overeem will land a solid punch in the first two minutes that knocks Lesnar out; or, Lesnar will take Overeem down early, secure position and pound him to a pulp; or, the fight will last more than a couple of minutes, in which case both men will gas, technique will go out the window, and it's going to be long and ugly. Of those options, I'm inclined to think that Lesnar gets the takedown and smashes Overeem's face in. No opponent Lesnar's faced has managed to keep from being taken down yet, though some have managed to get up again. Nothing in Overeem's background suggests that he'll be better at avoiding Brock's takedowns than the NCAA champion wrestlers that Lesnar's faced in the past. Brock by ground-and-Hulk-smash.


Unfortunately, we disagree on only one fight, so which of us emerges victorious rests solely on the Riddle/Ramos fight. The oddsmakers are with Kyle, but I'm still betting on Ramos.

Of course, the fact that we agree means nothing; we've both been wrong plenty of times in the past.

Tomorrow, I'll report back on how we fared this time.

As always, don't rely on us for betting advice!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin

Like most of the good movies I've seen this holiday season, Tintin was enjoyable but not as good as I had hoped given the reviews and word-of-mouth feedback I'd heard.

The film was certainly pretty to watch. The combination of stop-motion and normal CG animation produced a lovely result, with many details (hair, facial expressions on some characters) that were topnotch.

I saw the 3D version, but I found the 3D unremarkable, neither distracting from nor particularly enriching the movie.

The story was also fun, with a solid quest, a wide variety of locales, and a great deal of action.

As with Mission: Impossible, however, Tintin fell short of my goals for it in large part because it was so very predictable. The smaller steps in its plot were actually less formulaic and more interesting than those in MI, but like MI it could have used some tightening.

As I've thought more about this problem, I've come to believe that there are two basic ways to solve it. One is to cover the formulaic plot with so much style that the style itself becomes an object of interest, a factor that distracts you from thinking too much about the story and thus from realizing you know what is going to happen next. The other option is to tighten the story so it operates as a finely tuned velocity exercise, hurtling from one event to the next so quickly and with so little distraction that you never have time to get your bearings and realize that you could have predicted the outcome.

As I've said of so many other recent films, I did enjoy Tintin, and I can recommend it--but with the reservation I noted.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mission: Impossible, Ghost Protocol

I wanted to love this movie. I'm a long-time fan of the Mission: Impossible movies and even the old TV series. I loved Brad Bird's work as director on Ratatouille and The Incredibles. I was in the mood for fast-paced action. I figured this one to be the one sure film of the holidays for me.

I did enjoy it, but I didn't love it.

Three factors stopped the movie from being all it could have been.

The first was Tom Cruise's performance. The charm and humor he used to great effect in Knight and Day never appeared here. Instead, he showed two looks: the quick smile, and the scowl. Both are fine, but eventually you want more from a performance.

The second was how little the film surprised us. From the first time each character appears, you know who the character will be and how he or she will act. The plot jets down a completely telegraphed plot line. I don't mind knowing the good guys will win, but it would be nice for at least some of the details of the victory to be surprises.

The final weakness came from some combination of the writers and Bird: Each scene ran a little too long, as if they always wanted to put just one more obstacle between the good guys and the next stage of the plot. I'm all for making things difficult, but in this movie I found myself repeatedly wanting to advance to the next key event.

Despite these issues, I did, as I noted, still enjoy the movie as the brainless thrill ride it is supposed to be. I might even watch it again one day, if only to see if my first impressions hold.

I just didn't love it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My favorite art book publisher

is Taschen. These folks produce amazing books on a wide variety of subjects. I collect as many of them as I can reasonably manage--which is far from their complete catalog, given the insanely high prices of many of them.

To get a sense of their range, consider that they've produced a brilliant book on DC Comics, a fabulous volume of the complete works of Michelangelo, a fascinating book on the life and works of porn star Vanessa del Rio, and a history of the heyday of the American circus, to name but four random books from my collection.

That collection, by the way, has grown so big and generates so much interest from visitors that Gina and I are working to set up an area in my office bookshelves dedicated to Taschen.

If you're not familiar with these folks and their great books, check them out. You'll know what to ask for come next Christmas.

Monday, December 26, 2011

When you see cupcakes this weird...


...what do you do?

If you're me, you buy them, two each in chocolate and white cake.

When it comes time to eat them, however, you recruit help. Let others go first. It's only prudent.

In this case, no one on the volunteer team would try a whole cupcake. Instead, they split them.


As Sarah's expression may tell you, everything above the chocolate bit is frosting.

She couldn't finish half a cupcake before the sweetness level became too high.

I've yet to try a bite, but the remaining cupcakes aren't going anywhere, so there's time.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

If you celebrate this holiday, I hope yours is magical and joyous.

If you don't celebrate it, please don't take the wish as a religious affront, for I do not mean it as such. I still hope you have a magical and joyous day.

Now, I'm out! Back tomorrow.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The best 2011 album I heard this year

is Gift Horse, from Stephen Kellog and the Sixers. There's not a bad track on it, and it contains quite a few exceptional songs. I've had it in heavy rotation since it arrived, and I'm not tired of it yet.

If you aren't listening to these guys, you should be.

I've linked to a few of the songs before, but I'll still provide some samples here.

First, an in-station video of the one Sarah said she has played the most from the album.



I'm quite partial to this one. I'm using a no-video link just because the audio quality on the live shows I tried was so bad.



If you at all like these songs, buy this album and support these guys. I want them to make many more records.

Friday, December 23, 2011

How much ice cream is too much?

That's one of the issues I'm pondering as I sort by flavors the rather large order (27 pints) of Jeni's fabulous ice creams that is now filling our freezers.


My initial reaction was, maybe this much.



I then, however, came to my senses. We don't have every single flavor Jeni's makes, and we have only one pint of several different flavors.

Nah, this is not too much. After all, we have a lot of people visit at various points during the holidays.

Come to think of it, we may need more....

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Fox's Feast

As Aaron Vandemark, chef and owner of the wonderful Panciuto restaurant explained in an email message to customers,

I’ve been reading Fantastic Mr. Fox to Henry (my two year old). At one point the hungry animals, led by Mr. Fox, burrow into the farmers’ storage sheds and find themselves surrounded by fowl, pork and cider. What follows is a spectacular Fox’s feast for all to share and I thought it would be fun to do something similar at the restaurant. So… I’m working on a menu now and I expect it’s going to include, chicken, duck, livers, pork shoulders, maple roasted pork bellies, carrots (for the rabbits), cider (hard and soft), and more. This will be our first community style dinner we’ve had in quite a while and I hope it sets the tone for your time with family and friends during the holidays.
As anyone who knows me could tell you, this was tailor-made for me. I absolutely could not resist the notion, so last night a group of us converged on Panciuto for this event.

It was wonderful.

The menu (click on it to see a larger, easier-to-read image) sounded both tasty and adventurous.


(Sorry about the grease stains; the tables were full, and I kept my menu out for reference during the meal).

The food proved to be even more delicious than the menu sounded.

I was frankly wary of both of the first two courses, but I should never have doubted Aaron. They were amazingly good, the soup warm and flavorful without ever being overly strong. The salad made me wish every dressing included duck and mustard.

The main course--the three meats, the raviolis, and the greens and carrots--was so good everyone there ate too much and wished they could fit in more. The pork rack, which was the weakest of the three meats, would have been the star in any other meal, its meat ever more tender as you ate closer to the bone. The pork belly was absolutely perfect, the exact right mix of crispy outside and oh so soft inside. For many, though, the fried chicken stole the show: served as basically large fried nuggets, no bones anywhere, it was moist and tender and so delicious all of us agreed we had never tasted its equal.

The dessert, which none of us had room for but all of us ate, provided a lovely, delicious ending to the meal.

The atmosphere was also perfect. They set the restaurant in one long table, and we all sat and ate community style. The room rippled with conversations and laughter, and though no one person knew more than a fourth of those present, for those few hours we were, as Aaron intended, a community.

I wish I could have taken every single friend I have to this meal.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Hangover Part II

We'd enjoyed The Hangover's dumb action and humor, so tonight we decided to give its sequel a try.

Big mistake.

Unlike the many critics who hated this movie because it basically replays the plot of the first one, none of us minded that deficiency. We knew about it going in, and we were willing to tolerate it. We just wanted to laugh.

Unfortunately, the film gave us few moments of genuine humor.

What every single one of us disliked (and I despised) about The Hangover Part II was its meanness. The film's creators clearly were aiming for dark humor, but for most of the movie all they achieved was the equivalent of middle school bullies first pushing around a few weaker kids and then beating them badly. At no point were any of the male crew who were lost in Bangkok completely likable.

Give this one a pass, even if Netflix's or Amazon's streaming offerings are looking bleak and you're bored.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bridesmaids

Yeah, this movie has been out for a long time, but I just got around to watching it (on Blu-Ray) the other night. I can't recall when a movie has left me with such mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I laughed my ass off at many points during the film. It pulls no punches and will do anything for a laugh.

On the other hand, much of the laughter comes from some vicious cruelty that the protagonist, Kristen Wiig's character, suffers. She causes much of her own pain, but the situations are nonetheless both excruciating for her and, at times, difficult to watch.

The film also suffers from having very few likable characters. Each time you get close to one of the leads, she does something insensitive or dumb, and you like her less. Two of the supporting characters, those played by Melissa McCarthy and Chris O'Dowd (Simon in Pirate Radio), were also dumb but never as cruel as the rest, so they were the best touchstones at hand.

On balance, though, the film was worth watching and definitely funny as hell at times.

By the way, if you watch it on Blu-Ray, check the gag reel for a wonderful bit in which Jill Clayburgh manages to deliver with a straight face a description of an odd sexual practice--and then Kristen Wiig loses it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The trimmed tree

Each year, we have a small party to start the trimming of our tree. I say "start" because even with more than a dozen folks participating, we don't finish in the few hours the party runs. We just have too many ornaments, baubles we have accumulated over the years and that all end up on the usually rather massive tree. (This year's is about ten feet tall.)

Tonight's party got us this far.


Gina, who took all the photos, had to crop this one, so the tree looks rather crooked here. Its trunk is indeed a bit bent, but it's actually reasonably straight, as this photo from earlier in the process reveals.


Our ornament collection is a bit odd. Sure, we have many traditional balls, but we also have a Hawaiian shirt and more than one celebrity.


As well as menace.


The good ship Serenity is in there somewhere, as is a plastic pickle. There's really just no telling what you might find on our tree.

Bill recently pointed out to me that I am ritual man, a guy who has accumulated a ton of rituals, particularly around the holidays. He has a point, but I don't mind. Rituals such as this one are fun, bring friends together, and at least for me enrich the holidays. As the days shorten and grow colder, bringing some of the extended family together to eat, laugh, share warmth, and brighten the night is a very good thing indeed.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

How you feel about this movie is likely to mirror how you felt about its predecessor: if you enjoyed that one, you'll have a great time at this one, too.

I very much liked both.

The plot this time is at least as convoluted as the original's, but that's okay; it's also easy to follow. Director Guy Ritchie drops enough clues, both verbal and visual, that you can follow along if you pay close attention--and nod appreciatively at the reveals if you don't. He uses the same gimmick during fights to show the workings of Holmes' mind, but it's entertaining enough that you don't mind.

What makes the movie really tick is Robert Downey, Jr.'s Holmes. The performance is spot on, alternately clear-eyed and crazy, but always intense.

The other leads are all also quite good, though none obviously as important. Jude Law's Watson is as solid as the character should be. Stephen Fry's small turns as Mycroft enrich the movie and make you want more of him. Jared Harris proves to be a wonderful Moriarity, radiating menace and intelligence and more than a hint of insanity at every turn.

All that said, with the weakest dialog and almost no role, Noomi Rapace steals the camera's focus whenever she's on screen. I will watch her in anything.

The entire film, of course, is silly and over the top and ultimately predictable, but that's nothing new; the first was the same.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I did its predecessor.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

In which Sarah comes home

Yes, today the international traveling daughter returned safely to us, all as per plan.

Our eagerness at the airport gate where we all waited for her was high. You can practically see the doors trembling with an-ti-ci...say it...pation.


And then she appeared.


A short while later, we were home.


It's so very good to have her back.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Bad Santa sums up the worst of Christmas

As is our tradition, tonight a small group of us watched the unrated version of one of my favorite holiday films, Bad Santa, and ate sandwiches. (The sandwich part makes sense only if you've seen the movie. If not, go watch it.)

Though foul in language and tone, the movie really does have at its core a soft heart and an attempt at redemption. It also comments perfectly on the dark side of a commercialized Christmas. Near the end, Marcus is about to kill Willie (the Santa character, Billy Bob Thornton) and says the following:

It is Christmas, Willie.
But this is what we do.
We get the shit.
Christmastime, we get the shit.
Whatever one's religious beliefs, I think it's good to remember that this is not what Christmas is all about.

See: another reason to watch Bad Santa!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sometimes a weird notion

Most work days when I am in town, I eat lunch at the little cafe in our building. The food is generally good, and the people who own it are very nice--and working behind the counter preparing your food. We like the place enough that our company gives a benefit of a quarterly allowance to each staffer so they can buy some lunches there.

Like anyone who eats at the same place frequently, I tend to fall into ruts, eating the same few items over and over.

Yesterday, while I was deciding what to have for my lunch, an odd notion struck me: why not try everything on the menu at least once? Having considered that idea, I, of course, had to come up with an orderly way to proceed, so I decided to start in the upper left and work down and then left, as one reasonably would.

So, that's what I did.

Here's the menu. Click on it for a version large enough to read.


I've now eaten the first two items.

I also know what I'll be eating for many in-office work days to come.

Problem solved.

Welcome to my mind.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

So bad it's mandatory

I can't artistically defend the fact that I'm already psyched to see this movie, but I am.



So it goes.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Health update

After seven weeks of being sick, five of them with this wracking, choking cough that will not go away, I finally visited my ENT today. Who says I'm slow to take a hint?

After checking me all over, he concluded, as Bill had said he would, that I have bronchitis. He said it was a miracle I was walking around and working, at which I shrugged; I'm not going to let bronchitis slow me.

He prescribed a strong antibiotic, which I will start tonight when I get home from work. He also said I should indulge in a couple of weeks of rest and no work; that would be no. He finally prescribed a strong cough syrup to help me sleep, but I'll probably also ignore it.

I expect to be fully recovered in three to four days.

Were I a doctor, I would not enjoy having me as a patient.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A few promised happy snaps from the Las Vegas trip

I'm overdue on these, but I just got around to downloading them. Most are from the Grand Canyon trip, and I already posted one of those, so I won't put up many.

As always, click on any image to see a larger version of it.

Our helicopter, on which you can read the name of our trip company. No, it was not the one that suffered a crash last week.


Lake Mead from the air was magnificent and almost jarring, the only blue against the unrelenting shades of sand and brown that constituted most of the desert landscape.


The Colorado river wandering through the desert, another life-affirming bit of blue, though one that from a distance looks rather fragile.


On the ground, on the Native American side of the Canyon (with their permission, of course), you can see both the many geological strata and also the shades of green in the vegetation that manages to live there.


We had to stop to refuel on the top of a plateau. There we saw what was for me the first snow of the season.


For the surprisingly (to me) many who have written and asked, yes, there was shoe shopping.


And, yes, Jennie went home with another pair of Louboutins, this one insanely sparkly and color-shifting. Jain called them "all lizardy and shit," an apt description.


Lest you think I've forgotten that it was near Christmas, here's an example of Christmas subtlety, Vegas-style.


Even Cthulu had a Christmas exhibit.


Where else but Vegas?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How awkward can I feel posing while dressed up?

This awkward.


Did someone say "no-necked Mafia enforcer?"

How awkward can two men, my business partner Bill and I, feel while posing dressed up?

This awkward.


That's more than enough.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Exhausted

Tonight was our company's seasonal celebration, the holiday party that culminates our year. A tradition we've followed since before we even started PT, the SC gives us a chance to thank our staff and their families. It's a swanky, fun event, but it's also exhausting, because I spend most of it working--and a great deal of time beforehand helping make it happen. So, for now, no tux picture, but soon, really.

Now, work, and then sleep.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The essence of great service

I think a lot about this topic, because our company is in the service business. I talk to others about it. I contemplate how we provide service, and I pay attention to the service that others provide me.

After all this consideration, I come back to a basic principle and a corollary, both of which fit nicely in one sentence:

Great service comes from doing what your client wants, not from doing what you want to do.
Another way to say both parts, by the way, is that great service comes from putting your client ahead of yourself.

Any way you phrase it, neither part is easy.

I'm going to ignore here those situations in which what the client wants is something you're not willing, for whatever reason, to do. In such cases, you have two reasonable choices: attempt to change the client's mind, or bow out.

Doing what your client wants can be difficult for multiple reasons. The client might not know what he/she wants or might have only a basic understanding of that desire. Doing what the client wants might cost more than the client is willing to pay. And so on.

Doing what your client wants might also mean not getting what you want from the encounter. If your client really wants a dress and you don't have any, you'll probably have to send the client elsewhere.

Which gets to the second part, not doing what you want to do. If you want to sell shoes and she wants dresses, you lose. That happens. Get over it. If your client wants his steak well done and you consider anything darker than medium rare to be an abomination, either kick out the guy or char that beef.

All of this sounds so easy it shouldn't be necessary to discuss, but it's not. Watch the next time you're serving someone, or someone is serving you, and odds are that the server will violate this principle sometime during the transaction. As best I can tell, at core most people don't want to put others first most of the time, so their service suffers. That's understandable, but it will always limit how good they are at what they're doing.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

On wearing a tuxedo

I was briefly considering this topic because on Saturday night I will don mine for my company's seasonal celebration. (Bill and I always wear our tuxes for this event.)

When I was young, I thought owning a tux was a sign that a man had arrived. Only later did I learn that a very basic tux costs no more than a middling suit.

I also hoped that wearing a tux would automatically make one as elegant, handsome, and suave as Cary Grant, who was the most elegant man ever in a tux. Period.

Alas, that is not the case. No one is as elegant as Cary Grant was.

Still, in my experience, most men in tuxes look well-dressed and, more importantly, the women around them say they are. I never garner as many compliments from women as when I'm in my tux.

I do appreciate those compliments, but I still yearn to be as elegant as Cary Grant--and I know I never will be.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Some nights, I gotta be a DJ

Tonight is one of them. If you hate playing music selections from others, move along; I'll be back to something else tomorrow.

For now, though, I needed to listen to this Death Cab song, which also has a deeply sentimental and lovely video.



Speaking of honest sentiment, check out this great song from Van Morrison. The video is silly and at times dumb, but at least you get the original, uncensored lyrics.



Lest I spend the entire playlist in sentiment, here's Henry and his band with some advice for the next party.



I'm gonna close on sentiment, though, with a song I've featured before that I just love. It's not the original version, but it's my favorite.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Child abuse changes your brain

If you were abused, you almost certainly already believed this.

If you read the March, 2002 Scientific American article (preview here), you were more convinced.

Now, though, the extremely respectable journal Current Biology has published an article, "Heightened neural reactivity to threat in child victims of family violence," that makes the point quite clearly with some excellent work from a group of top UK scientists. (Thanks to my pal, John Lambshead, for pointing me to this story.)

For an easy to read summary of it, check out this Wired piece, "How Abuse Changes a Child’s Brain." The article opens with this line:

The brains of children raised in violent families resemble the brains of soldiers exposed to combat, psychologists say.
Hell, many of my readers and Dave's already knew that. I sure did. Still, the scientific confirmation is good to have.

This bit summarizes the research:
His team compared fMRIs from abused children to those of 23 non-abused but demographically similar children from a control group. In the abused children, angry faces provoked distinct activation patterns in their anterior insula and right amygdala, parts of the brain involved in processing threat and pain. Similar patterns have been measured in soldiers who’ve seen combat.
The brain changes, of course, are not the only physiological adaptations to abuse (and PTSD of other sorts). As the Scientific American article and its sources made clear, key glands also change, one consequence of which is a heightened adrenaline response.

I do not mention all this to make excuses, because I don't believe any of it provides an excuse for anything I or any other abused person does. We are each responsible for our actions.

No, I'm bringing it out because I want people to understand that the cost of child abuse is high and lifelong, physical and mental, and most importantly, unacceptable.

Monday, December 5, 2011

On the road again: Las Vegas, day 4

Kyle once observed that by writing my blog I am making an implicit promise to its readers to lead an interesting life. I have certainly failed on that task today, because there's rarely much of interest in a day you spend on planes.

I slept as late as I could, worked, showered, and headed to the airport. Each step of the travel process proceeded about as you'd expect it would, with no particularly noteworthy occurrences. I see this as all to the good, because the travel days worthy of notice tend to be so because they contain particularly bad experiences. I am happy that today contains nothing exceptionally bad.

I'm home now and, thanks to bandwidth on both flights, largely caught up on email. Physical mail, unpacking, and so on await me, as usual, but that's part of the cost of travel.

Tomorrow, life returns largely to normal--or as normal as it gets in this holiday season.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

On the road again: Las Vegas, day 3

I always prefer to sleep insanely late when I can, but today that was not possible for a very good reason: a trip to the Grand Canyon. Still, I slept more than usual and awoke feeling better than usual; not a coincidence, I suspect.

We headed out on a mission to find the tour bus that was to take us to Boulder City, NV, where our helicopter awaited. The Venetian staffer I had asked had made the path sound difficult, but fortunately it was not. In no time we arrived there, and I caught up on email on my phone while waiting for the bus.

After a bit, we boarded the bus and rode for the better part of an hour, some of that going to other hotels and some on the open road.

At the Boulder City airport, we checked in, watched the safety video--a requirement of the tour group, and then joined with a few folks from Ohio on our helicopter.

I haven't been in a helicopter for a very long time, so I had forgotten how very much I like flying in them. That knowledge flooded back to me within seconds of us lifting off from the ground.

Prior to taking this helicopter trip, I wasn't sure if the ride would be worth the expense, or if I would find the Grand Canyon amazing.

I had no reason to doubt either one.

The trip was easily worth the cost, and the Grand Canyon is awesome.

I took a lot of photos and will upload more later when I'm on my main system, but for now, because it's his birthday celebration trip, this one will suffice: Kyle, in front of our helicopter, near the bottom of the Grand Canyon.


As always, click on the photo for a larger image.

The sheer scope of the canyon and its geological diversity are both stunning. I cannot recommend this trip too highly.

For the readers who have asked, yes, there was some shopping, led by the women in our group. After that, I worked, and then we headed for dinner to Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill. My last experience there was decidedly meh, but I was hoping that the Mesa Burger, about which I had read good things, would be as tasty as its reviews suggested. Alas, the burger is available only during the day, so I was out of luck. My dinner was once again meh. I won't be going back there.

The gelato at the Bellagio's Cafe Gelato, however, was as delicious as always, so the food part of the day ended on a high note.

Tomorrow is a travel and work every second I can day, but that's okay by me, because I have a ton to do. Plus, if I stayed here, I would both go broke and weigh 1,100 pounds. Still, it's been a good trip so far. I hope travel tomorrow goes well.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

On the road again: Las Vegas, day 2

After some much needed sleep, I started today with our traditional brunch at the Las Vegas version of Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bistro. It was as delicious as always, and we all ate entirely too much.

From there we headed straight to the Palms casino for the finale of The Ultimate Fighter TV show. Here, courtesy of Kyle, I stand in front of the octagon in which the fights take place.


After the fights, which were excellent, we grabbed a taxi to the MGM Grand for our second traditional meal of the day, dinner at Craftsteak. Everything I tasted was delicious, though once again I think our group consumed entirely too much food.

More sleep awaits me.

Tomorrow, a strange trip I've not made before!

Friday, December 2, 2011

On the road again: Las Vegas, day 1

Three and a half hours of sleep with one wake-up in the middle is not enough rest for me when I'm totally healthy. I'm far from totally healthy, so six a.m. this morning came way too early for me. Still, I got up without an alarm, showered, and headed to the airport on schedule.

The flights were generally good, because I secured first-class seats on both legs and bandwidth on the second. The combination of a ton of Diet Coke and a lot of concentration let me keep current with work until I had to shut off my laptop as we were touching down in Las Vegas.

After the usual luggage and taxi wrangling, and a remarkably efficient hotel check-in process, we dropped off our stuff and grabbed a snack at the Bouchon bakery.

More work followed.

The evening went to the early show of Cirque's Zumanity, which I enjoyed far more this time than the first time I saw it, and then an excellent Chinese dinner at Wing Lei.

I'd tell you more, but I'm falling over exhausted, so I'm going to wrap this up, do a tad more work, and then crash for what I hope will be many hours of rest.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Levi Weaver

A while back, I landed from a trip and headed straight to a coffee shop to watch Ben, Sarah's boyfriend, perform as the opener for a Nashville musician he knows, Levi Weaver. I'd never heard of Weaver, so I went to listen to Ben--who was very good. I stayed, though, because I was there, the crowd was small, and live music is a good thing.

I'm very glad I did.

I enjoyed Weaver's music a lot. After the show, I bought all his CDs and a t-shirt; I wanted to support his tour.

I also signed up for his newsletter. Today, it brought me notice of this video, which I found lovely and more than a bit haunting.



As of this writing, 303 people have viewed this video. Levi is an artist out there working, doing his best, and this song and video are quite good. As far as I'm concerned, he deserves a vastly bigger audience. Of course, we don't get to pick our audience sizes (if we did, every one of my books would stay atop the New York Times bestseller list until the next one came out), but I think he's worth your time. For whatever that's worth.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Apropos of nothing

An ambitious bug hitching a ride on my Prius.


Click the image to see a larger version and appreciate his beauty.

This happened a while back but flashed into my memory for no good reason.

My mind is like that.

That is all.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sarah makes it to Italian MTV

You can read a lot more about her day in her always entertaining blog here, but if you want to get right to the television commercials, look below.

In this first one, she appears in the first scene in a rainbow wig with a fake guitar.



In the second, she's still in the rainbow wig, but now in the last scene for a fraction of a second before the smiling pale guy covers her.



Fun.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Happy snaps from the recent long trip

(As always, click on any image to see a larger version.)

From a movie theater in San Diego, proof that California deserves to slide into the Pacific after the next big one.


I mean, seriously: calories on theater food? That's positively un-American!

Tourist stop or not, Emeril's makes the best banana cream pie I've ever tasted.


As multiple New Orleans residents told me, the new cuisine you cannot avoid there is Vietnamese. We ate lunch at one hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joint near the con, and the food was delicious. Here's my plate of awesome goodness.


I mentioned the restaurant Hobnobbers. Here's what you see as you come toward it down the narrow alley that is one of the two ways into the place.


The other is via the bar.

Once you're inside, you see this small room, which feels like it's been there forever, even though the place opened in 1987.


If I lived near it, I'd eat there entirely too often.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Panciuto as the leaves surrender

We haven't been back for months, so last night we returned to Panciuto to see what Chef Aaron Vandemark would make from the ingredients of this season.

Once again, the food blew us away. I have yet to taste a single mediocre dish there.

We started by sharing a cheese and charcuterie board, which featured, as is Vandemark's way, all local ingredients. Each bite was delicious, though the star was the pork belly, which was everything it should be: crispy and yet unctuous, rich and amazing.

My starter was a flat bread with greens, cheese, and pulled pork shoulder. The server advised that we pick it up and eat it with our hands, which was possible only by never letting go once you had the delicate bread in your hands.

My main, which I could not finish, was by far the best pork shank I've ever tasted. Cooked in a sauce that included molasses but never turned too sweet, the meat fell off the bone and was moist and flavorful and wonderful. The gnocchi on the side were pillowy soft and rich in flavor. Even the wilted greens, of which I am frequently suspicious, were amazing--though it helps that he cooked them in the meat juice.

Dessert was an apple crostada with the best cinnamon ice cream I've ever tasted.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: if you live around here, you need to get to Panciuto as soon as possible.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Muppets

is that rare movie that holds no surprises, tells you up front what it's going to do, and manages to do it so well that you not only stay entertained the whole time, you are likely to applaud at random moments.

The plot is simple: Bad guy (Chris Cooper) sets out to destroy our team of plucky heroes (the Muppets). With the aid of some new friends (Jason Segel, Amy Adams--who is wonderful in the part, and the newest Muppet, Walter), the heroes save the day, overcoming many obstacles along the way. You've seen it before a zillion times, and you'll see it again a zillion times.

Fortunately, the shape of a plot is never the important thing. What matters is how the particular work executes that plot.

The Muppets brings its classic mixture of wide-eyed innocence and corny jokes, many that only the grown-ups will get, to the task, and the combination works wonderfully.

I did not grow up watching the Muppets, nor did I watch them a lot with the kids. I'm not a huge Muppets fan; others with me knew songs and bits of schtick that I did not. Despite that ignorance, I had great fun watching this movie.

If you feel the need for some wonderfully entertaining silliness--and who among us can't use that from time to time?--catch this one in the theater.

Friday, November 25, 2011

I screwed up

I recently made the mistake of glancing through my Amazon reviews for Children No More--something no writer should ever do with her/his books. Sadly, that is not the error I am writing about. No, I have to confess something worse.

A comment from Richard Brice pointed out that I screwed up the way parachutes work. In researching the scene, I had talked to a few folks who had gone skydiving, and I'd watched some videos, but I had failed to consult anyone who really understood the process. I consequently spoke of a lift occurring when the parachute opens, but in fact no such thing happens. It feels like you're being pulled up, but the sensation is inaccurate. On most videos it looks as if the skydiver is going up when the chute opens, but that's because the camera operator is usually falling without having opened his/her parachute.

No, you do not go up. Instead, you just slow your rate of descent.

I hate making errors, particularly those I could have prevented.

I will, as always, endeavor to minimize them.

My thanks to Mr. Brice, because I have learned something useful, and people should call me out when I screw up like this.

Now, back to the book in progress.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A moment of Thanksgiving thanks

I am so very fortunate that I could write all day and still not be able to list all my blessings. Because this blog hangs off my writing site, though, I want to say thank you to a large group of people most of whose members I don't know: everyone who buys my books or comes to my shows.

It's amazing, really, if you think about it. I've been telling stories my whole life, writing and talking and generally taking an undue share of the attention space around me, and now people are kind enough to pay me to do so. Like every writer or performer or artist of any type, I always want my audience to be bigger, my books to sell better, my shows to require arenas, and so on; to steal a great line from my friend, Lew Shiner, there is never enough love in the room.

Sometimes, though, I manage enough perspective to realize that I am incredibly lucky that anyone is willing to read my words or listen to me talk.

Thank you, all of you, who do that.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The best Google doodle ever

It's not the turkey we're enjoying today, though that is fun.

It's the Stanislaw Lem doodle that Google is giving some Europeans for the sixtieth anniversary of Lem's first book. (Thanks to Allyn for pointing me to this.) You can read about it here, and you can see clips of just the doodle itself, which did not come with music, on YouTube on pages like this one.



It's not just a doodle, either; it's an animated game. Check out the Easter egg explanation here.

Well done, Google folks.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

On being grateful

Dave forwarded me this New York Times article. Go ahead and read it. I'll wait.

What I find most interesting about the article is not just the attitude it espouses, which I believe is a good one, but the fair amount of science behind it. The bottom line seems to be that we are wired to be grateful--and to benefit from expressing that gratitude.

That's very cool.

I'm always grateful when people do things for me, even small things. I try to express that gratitude, and I'm a big believer in the basic social niceties.

As I've thought more about my behavior, however, I've had to admit that I need to become much better at showing my appreciation. I need to both feel the gratitude and express it.

I'm going to do my best.

Monday, November 21, 2011

On the road again: Houston, day 2

Everything went well until I hit the airport for the flight home.

I stepped to the side to open my suitcase so I could take out the book I'm reading and change into more comfortable shoes. The lock was stuck and would not open. No, I didn't forget the combination; I have it noted in another place just in case. The lock simply wouldn't open.

Stuck in the suitcase was my small baggie of liquid items, each in the TSA-approved size. So, I passed through security nervously, but after some discussion about whether the liquids looked to be the right size, the TSA folks let me through.

The airport's only bandwidth on offer was a Boingo hotspot that was temporarily down. So much for work there.

Dinner was a bright spot: a very large and very tasty hot dog.

My seat on the plane proved to be on the bulkhead row in coach. It was at least an aisle seat, so I was hoping to be able to work. Alas, no bandwidth on the plane. No problem: I'd have some concentrated quiet time to write.

No such luck. A father filled the window seat to my left, and he completely covered the middle seat with baby stuff. His wife and two kids were in the three seats across the aisle.

The row behind me held a father and two kids, with the mother and their other two kids on the opposite side.

The row behind that one held the same arrangement: two parents, four kids.

No kid in any of these rows was older than six.

All of them went off at once during take-off. We had an earache, several bored boys, and a variety of fights.

At no point during the next two and a half hours was there ever a single second when we didn't have at least one kid crying and two others fighting. Not once.

My favorite parent line: "No, Michael, I don't believe that Joey hit your thumb with his eye."

My favorite conversational snippet:

Child: Are we going to get a van?

Father: I'm not sure. We're going to get a vehicle of some type, maybe a van, maybe an SUV.

Child: What's a vehicle?

Father: Like a car or a van.

Child: Why didn't you say so?

Father: [sigh]

Child: What's an SUV?

Father: A sports utility vehicle.

Child: What kind of sports does it play?

Father: No, you use it for sporty things.

Child: What kinds of sports do you play with it?

Father: You don't play sports with them. You do things like drive off-road with them.

Child: Aren't you supposed to stay on the road?

Father: Yes. Don't worry about SUVs.

Child: What's u-til-i-til-i-tee?

Father: It's like a usage, a way you use something.

Child: But you said you don't use it for sports.

Father: Would you like me to buy you the cartoons they're playing on the screen here?

Child: Okay.
At least that part of the trip was fun, though it would have been more fun if the baby across the aisle hadn't been crying. If all the other kids had been quiet and just let this one grill his father, I would have been happy the whole flight. Alas, the conversation ended when the cartoons took over.

When we landed in RDU, I called the TSA airport office, which Gina had found and which is open around the clock. The guy there graciously said he would indeed try to open my bag with his TSA key. Of course, his office was in the farthest point in the opposite terminal from where I was.

When I got there, courtesy of Rana picking me up and looping around, the guy came out, put in his key...and nothing happened.

"That's strange," he said, "I've never seen it fail."

We tried many different combinations, but nothing worked. Eventually, we set the combination correctly, he held the key in the open position, and I pounded on the lock with the side of my fist--and one of the two zippers came free. A little more pounding freed the other.

I am so very glad to be home.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

On the road again: Houston, day 1

What is it with me and row-mates on flights? Today's flight found me on an airline with which I have no privileges but in an exit row window seat--not ideal, but pretty darn good.

An older couple were seated next to me, man on the aisle, woman in the center.

The woman's right arm was sprained and heavily bandaged. When the flight attendant came for the mandatory "can you open the emergency door?" question, the woman hid the bum arm under a jacket and lied that she could open and remove the emergency exit door should the need arise. I didn't call her on it because I was right next to the door, and I'm damn sure her arm wouldn't slow me.

The moment we took off, she and her husband brought out the snacks. A few seconds later, she started elbowing me in the ribs.

I moved as close to the bulkhead as I could and pulled entirely off the armrest.

She elbowed me some more.

I put my arm between us.

She pushed on it with her arm and elbowed it.

People have asked me why I don't verbally complain when these things happen. My answer is that nothing good comes of doing so and that I fear losing my temper. Recalling those questions, though, I decided to try today. I faced the woman and said, "Please stop elbowing me."

Her response: "Well, how else am I supposed to eat my popcorn and read?"

Her point was that with her hurt arm, reaching the popcorn bag between her legs meant her arm had to hit me.

I considered her answer rude and offensive, but I tried to rise above my initial reaction. I considered the question and after a few moments said, "I'm sorry for the difficulty, but I don't think it's reasonable that you keep elbowing me, particularly given that I'm as close to the bulkhead as I can be. Perhaps you could put down the book while eating the popcorn and hold the bag in your right hand."

She shook her head. "I don't like that. I want to read while I eat."

At that, she returned to her book and to elbowing me.

I stuck my arm between us and let her elbow it until she finished the bag of popcorn and took a nap.

I fought my anger the entire time.

The flight was otherwise good, though I greatly missed having an Internet connection.

After landing and getting the rental car, a process that is always slower than I like, we successfully navigated to our hotel. The bandwidth here is great, the best I've had this year from a hotel--and this is the least expensive hotel at which I've stayed for business. Bandwidth is frequently and frustratingly in direct inverse correlation with hotel price.

Dinner was at a nearby Rudy's, which admittedly is a chain but quite a decent one. We enjoyed brisket and jalapeno sausage, both of which were yummy.

I'll be here only until tomorrow night, when I fly home, but any trip that includes Texas barbecue is already a decent one.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tower Heist

is one of those movies that you can enjoy as long as you never engage your brain and just go along for the ride. If you think at all about it, however, you will be sorry.

The trailer tells you the whole basic story: nasty Wall Street trader steals gazillions of dollars from unsuspecting clients, a group that includes the staff of the luxury apartment building where he lives. One of them (Stiller) decides to assemble a team to steal back their money. It's a decent structure for a story.

The cast is full of good actors delivering good performances. I particularly like Alan Alda playing a bad guy; his normally smarmy nature works extremely well when he's saying evil things. The only actor whose performance was, as always, a vast empty sucking void of nothingness was Tea Leoni. I have never understood her appeal, nor can I recall a decent performance from her.

The problem with the movie is that it can't decide whether to fully embrace its unrealistic nature. Consequently, it alternates scenes of real people facing real issues with those of completely impossible action. The result is jarring, with the ending being the very most troubling part of the movie. I won't give the spoiler here, but suffice to say that after embracing its fantasy side for almost the entire last half hour, the film suddenly decides to hand us a token bit of realism at the last moment.

It's a huge mistake. The film should have stuck to it unrealistic roots and embraced them fully and unashamedly.

Still, I had a pleasant enough time watching it on a night after a good meal. I just can't recommend it unless you're jonesing for a movie, are in need of something mindless, and have a couple of hours to kill.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Not a bad answer

As many of you know, one of my favorite films is Richard Curtis' The Boat That Rocked, which appeared here in the U.S. in a shorter (and inferior) version as Pirate Radio. What many of you may not know is that the deleted scenes from the film are often as good as anything in it.

In the deleted scene below, a rather pompous character, the DJ Gavin, explains the end of his quest to find the meaning of life. What Curtis offers isn't an answer, of course, but it'll do nicely on many days until something better comes along.

Enjoy.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Great cheeseburgers

Cheeseburgers, really good ones, are among the many reasons I can't seriously contemplate becoming a vegetarian, as good as that would be for me.

In a few weeks, I'll be in Las Vegas again for the UFC show and our annual celebration of Kyle's birthday.

The combination of these factors led me to this article on the top five burgers in Las Vegas. I've eaten only one of them, the amazing FleurBurger (the regular one, not the $5,000 one made so pricey by a $4,929 bottle of wine), so clearly I have a lot to do.

Given that we're eating at Mesa Grill one night, I think a second of these will soon be in my belly.

Oh, yeah.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Two reasons you need to buy Gift Horse

Gift Horse, if you don't already know about it, is the new album from Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers. It's a very strong album, with a lot of great songs. Rather than hit the first single they promoted, let me point you to two others, both via YouTube videos.

Start with this admittedly so-so video of "My Favorite Place."



Then, move to this stronger video of "Roots and Wings," which Sarah also touted on her travel blog.



Yes, you need to get this album.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Lessons I'm trying to learn right now

Talk less. Listen more.

Talk less. Do more.

Take less credit. Give more credit.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Yeah, that's right: I went, and I'm even admitting it publicly. You know what else? It was funny, damn funny.

If you don't know the Harold and Kumar movies, of which this is the third, think Cheech and Chong for the new century, stoner films with fewer censors riding herd on them. Mix in a good helping of Neil Patrick Harris hamming it up, and you have a surefire recipe for dumb humor.

Well, okay, not just dumb humor: frequently offensive dumb humor. This film sets out to offend in every area it can, though mostly in gentle, elbow-lightly-in-the-rib sorts of ways, and it succeeds in doing just that. Whatever your religion, odds are the movie manages to take a gentle swipe at it. Its very fairness in picking on everything helps keep the humor fun and not mean.

It's tempting to label this sort of film a guy thing, but this one is not, or at least it wasn't on the night we went. About 40% of the audience was female, and the women were laughing as loudly as the men.

I should also note that this film never for a minute tries to be serious. It's a stoner fantasy fable from start to finish. That's a good thing, by the way; when this type of movie tries to be serious, it almost always fails badly.

I laughed a lot, and if the film has any appeal at all to you, I suspect you will, too. I even found the 3D effects, over-done and over-the-top as they were, to be worth the extra cost.

I can't wait for the unrated DVD.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Watch the Michigan anti-bullying law situation

If you're not familiar with what's going on in Michigan, you're missing an amazing and frightening American political battle.

It started reasonably enough. Michigan is one of the few states that doesn't have an anti-bullying law, so it decided to address that shortcoming. The situation turned weird, however, when Republicans in its Senate transformed the law from one that condemned bullying into one that condoned it--as long as you learned how to explain your bullying actions. How did the Michigan GOP State Senators accomplish this feat? By adding a few key words to the law and saying that it did not apply to

“a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian.”
Think about this change in practice. I can call you any name I want, do anything to you I want, as long as I'm willing to say that my religion or morals endorse that belief. Beat you up because you're gay? No problem: my religion says it's wrong. Harass you because you're Jewish? Sure, because my religion says yours is not the one true way. It's a beautifully versatile exemption, because anyone can use it to justify anything.

What utter horseshit.

Bullying is wrong. Period.

The good news is that the Michigan House removed the language in its version of the bill. Though that's not as far as I'd like to see them go, at least it does delete the language condoning bullying. Now, the Michigan House and Senate have to thrash out this disagreement. They will do so with the eyes of the nation upon them.

We can only hope that the Michigan House triumphs in this particular battle.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Stupid responses to abuse

As the news and Web chatter about the child-abuse case at Penn State grows and mutates, people all over the Web are understandably talking about it. This is a good thing: the more attention we bring to child abuse, the better. It is something we should stop.

Unfortunately, of course, some of the comments are offensively stupid. I've seen a few and had friends point me to others. Here are a few of the worst.

What did the child do to encourage the abuse?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing a child can do, no matter how outrageous the behavior, is reason enough for abuse.

In the main case here, we're talking an eleven-year-old boy being raped repeatedly by a grown man. Get this straight:

It is not the boy's fault. Rape is never the victim's fault.

It is the man's fault.

Come on, he was 11. That's hardly a child.

I'm so glad I only read this comment and didn't have someone say it to my face. I really don't want to get in more fights. I don't want to punch out a stranger.

This comment, though, deserves it. Yes, 11 is still a child. In case you haven't noticed, we have laws that specify when adulthood occurs, and 11 is years before that age. More to the point, though, just go see a few eleven-year-olds, or remember what you were like then. They are children. Period.

Why didn't the boy tell anybody?

Odds are, he tried. If he didn't, it was probably because the abuser told him not to, and because he was terrified. We're talking a child being raped by an adult in a position of trust. This child had no clue what to do, was terrified, violated, and in mental and physical anguish.

Why didn't the boy stop it?

First, see the punching comment above. Exactly how should the boy have stopped the abuse? Fought off the man? Over-powered him? Run away from home--a path as likely as any, by the way, to lead to more abuse? At age 11?

The boy was powerless.


I could go on, but you get the idea: When anyone tries to make this the victim's fault, that person is wrong. Period.

If you are an abuse victim yourself, and I am, you have heard all of these before. You have tried to tell people, and they have told you that what happened to you was your fault, or it was disgusting, or you should just get over it. You have learned to hide the abuse because surely, surely there was something you did to deserve it, something wrong with you that made this horrible thing happen to you, and you should have found a way to stop it.

No. No. No.

That is all bullshit. It is the set of lies others tell themselves to rationalize their acceptance of fundamentally unacceptable behavior or to avoid the ugly reality--an avoidance that encourages the continuation of these horrors.

Here is the simple, single most important truth:

It is not your fault.
You did nothing to deserve it.

You could not have stopped it.

It is not your fault.

In the Penn State case, it is not the fault of any of the boys. Saying otherwise is not only stupid but damaging, because each time someone says it, they condone abuse, and they are wrong.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thanks to the vets who paid--and are still paying

We should all take the opportunity today to thank the vets we know. Those who served in war paid a high price for doing their citizen's duty, and they are all still paying. I'd like to thank three different folks in this entry.

To my friend, Dave, I give my thanks for keeping it between the ditches even when going into them looked a lot less painful than motoring on. Dave's writing has helped a lot of fellow vets understand that they're not alone, that others do understand, and that though they may never again be who they were, they can spend a lifetime improving. I'm most particularly grateful for his friendship.

To my deceased stepfather, Edmund D. Livingston, Senior, I give my thanks for all the years of taking care of my mother, my brother, and my sister. Ed went ashore at Okinawa and watched as everyone around him was injured or killed. He was injured twice and carried shrapnel until the day he died. As I said at his wake, he wasn't my father--I was almost 17 when he and my mom married--but I would have been proud if he had been.

To Jester, a guy I know only in email, I give my thanks for holding it together and fighting every day not to use his training. We both know how easy that would be, but you are too strong, too good to give in. I thank you for putting back the tools of war, over and over and over.

Thank you, all.

Thank you, all who served.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pissed and embarrassed

My master's degree is from Penn State. I lived in Happy Valley for almost 18 months, 15 of them getting the degree and 3 working at a job I ended up hating. I've never had any huge love for the school, but I generally have fond memories of it, and I met a lifelong friend there.

I mention this because I'm pissed the child-raping scandal at Penn State has left me angry at the school and, irrationally, embarrassed at having ever been associated with it.

I understand that there's always a chance the allegations will prove to be unfounded, but based on the university's actions, I believe that's highly unlikely. (Ref., for example, this sports-oriented article. Or this one.)

Fans are feeling sorry for good old Joe Paterno. Fuck that. I have no sympathy. When you learn that an adult man has been raping a child, you don't call your bosses and shrug. You fire the guy, call the police, tell your bosses, and help the kid. You stop the abuse. I don't care if the abuser is your best friend or the most important person in your company; you stop the abuse. Period.

Fans are worrying over whether this event will color Paterno's great football record. I sure hope it does. He turned a blind eye to a man raping a child. He deserves all the suffering life can heap on him.

Fuck Joe Paterno and all the other gutless Penn State football and administrative staff who let this child raping continue. They deserve no sympathy. The raped child (or children, as it may well be) deserve our sympathy and our help.

The adults who let it happen deserve only our condemnation and the harshest penalties the law can throw at them.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

It's almost time...

...to watch this movie again. Yeah, I know it's not Thanksgiving yet, so I'm not putting up any holiday decorations, but that doesn't mean the movie isn't in my thoughts.

You see, Sarah will be home in about five weeks, and she's already decreed we'll watch it that first night.

Hell, yeah.

That's my daughter.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tumor update

Today, I spent most of the afternoon in the offices of the Duke Health Clinic waiting for and then talking with Dr. Ramon Esclamado. Dr. Esclamado leapt out of the online research as one of the leading surgeons in the country for dealing with tumors of the parotid gland, which is of course what I have.

The wait was entirely unreasonable, well over 90 minutes, but at least I was able to do email from my phone. Eventually, I did get to see the man. Despite my request to send his office my records, my ENT office had not done that. Esclamado listened, asked questions, and checked out the tumor. (The tumor's name, by the way, is Hymie, a friendly name for a benign tumor.) He wanted to be 100% sure it was a Warthin's tumor and wanted his own pathologist to check the tissue sample--hey, this is Duke!--so I agreed to a second fine-needle aspiration biopsy (FNA) right there and then. After all, it hurt not at all last time.

Ah, this time was a bit different. The pathologist came in and did not offer to numb the skin. She was moving fast and noted that she liked to take two extensive samples, i.e., to stick a needle in my face twice. She did. Each time, she rooted around like she was using that needle to check for underground cables.

The result was a more bloody, more cell-filled sample than the previous doctor obtained, which is good for accuracy but was definitely more painful to supply.

She took the samples outside--four of them, two from each session in my face--and read them at a microscope right there.

Conclusion: Warthin's Tumor, just as the previous pathologist had said.

Dr. Esclamado then returned. He said that in 24 years he'd seen the FNA be wrong exactly once, and that was a very long time ago. He said Warthin's tumors have zero chance of turning cancerous and basically are no problem. He said mine might stay as it is, or it might grow slowly. If it grows to the point that its appearance bothers me, he can take it out. It's also possible that when I get a cold (as I have now) or a sinus infection (as I just had), the tumor could get inflamed (it is not and was not, which is a very good sign), in which case they would give me antibiotics to reduce the inflammation, and then they would remove it.

Otherwise, though, he said there was absolutely no reason to take it out unless I just hated how it looks. He suggested I just leave it alone.

Considering that I spotted it only by accident and that I haven't met anyone yet who noticed it without me telling them it was there, I am indeed going to leave it alone.

If it one day grows big enough to bother me or starts becoming a problem with colds, I'll visit him again and schedule the surgery. He said he'd be shocked if that happened anytime sooner than a decade, and it very well might never happen.

So, like my broken arm and deviated septum, the tumor will be another sign of wear and tear that I will carry around with me.

I can live with that. In fact, I'm damn happy about it.

Hymie is here to stay.

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