Saturday, May 11, 2013

Iron Man 3

Unless you've been living under a rock, you already know if you should go to this movie.  If you saw the trailer and went, "Cool, I gotta go," then, yes, you gotta go.  If, on the other hand, the trailer left you cold and wondering when someone will finally make a great film from a John Cheever novel, then skip it and keep waiting for that day that will never come.

So, I won't try to help you decide.  Instead, I'll give you my thoughts on the movie. 

Warning:  spoilers ahead.

Overall, I enjoyed it quite a bit and will see it again at some point.  For timing reasons, I had to watch it in 3D, which is rarely my first choice, so next time, I'll try to catch a standard version. 

That said, two major things about it bothered me, so I didn't love it.

First, the good stuff.  The opening act, in which Robert Downey, Jr. angsts and angsts and angsts, is nowhere near as bad as most critics have it being.  It didn't bother me at all.  He's a good enough actor, and I'm enough into the character (from a life of reading the comics), that I found this part more than entertaining enough. 

The rest of the main actors turned in either strong or fun performances. Guy Pearce chewed the scenery in huge, drooling bites, and I'm fine with that. Gywneth Paltrow once again managed to be interesting and even attractive, attributes she has managed to achieve, as far as I'm concerned, only in the Iron Man films.  I will watch Don Cheadle act in anything.

And then there's Ben Kingsley.  That man can flat out act.  In this case, the role called for him to play two very different characters, both of whom needed to chow down on some scripts, and he did so with apparent glee.  As the actor playing the Mandarin, he was such silly fun to watch that I hope for more of him in an extended cut.  

That turn of plot was a very nice touch indeed, by the way, and because I'd avoided any spoilers prior to seeing the film, it was news to me. 

The action sequences, even when they made little sense, were great fun.

The first thing that kept me from loving this movie was the complete lack of rules for the powers of the bad guys.  I didn't miss the line about needing to regulate to stop from exploding in a three-thousand-degree ball of heat, but that wasn't enough to excuse the way Pearce's powers--and Paltrow's--grew and mutated at the end.

The other upsetting factor was the separation of Tony Stark from Iron Man.  The big battle was more Jarvis in multiple suits fighting the enemy than Iron Man facing down a foe.  Worse, the separation of his chest power source from the suits, and the eventual removal of that power source, damaged the man/Iron Man link.  If they make any more Iron Man movies, and I'm not at all sure if they will, I'll be curious to see how they handle this.

Still, as I said, I enjoyed the film and will see it again. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

What I must see next weekend

No two ways about it.

I can't wait.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Thoughts after living without paper books for six weeks

As I've mentioned in other posts, my six-week sabbatical trip to Europe was the first time in my memory that I have gone on a trip without any paper books.  Instead, I read ebooks on a seven-inch tablet.  At the end of that time, my feelings were decidedly mixed.

On the plus side, I comfortably read quite a few books from my enormous, house-sized, to-read stack.  I had no problems with screen clarity, the weight of the tablet, battery life, or any other aspect of living ebook-only.  When I read a novel and wanted to immediately read a related one, I just bought the new one online and started reading it. 

On the minus side, I missed paper books.  I've been reading exclusively on paper since my return, and I definitely prefer paper to any electronic medium.  I love the look, feel, heft--pretty much everything about books. 

Except their weight while traveling.  I do not love that.

My conclusion is one that wastes money:  On any trip where weight is a factor, I'm going to continue to travel with only ebooks.  I'm also going to continue to buy paper books at my normal ferocious rate, so all my ebooks will be duplicates of paper books I already own.  If I buy an ebook, I'll also buy its paper counterpart.

Sue me.  I love books.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A half-hearted apology to my son on the occasion of his 20th birthday

Today was Scott's twentieth birthday.  He now gets to spend a year neither legal adult nor teenager, being an age he and other college students have told me is not the best because everyone considers you an adult but you don't have the legal rights of adults.  I think they have a point. 

To celebrate, we took Scott and some of his friends to dinner at the place of Scott's choice, The Pit.  The food was yummy, and we all had a good time.

Afterward, I probably embarrassed him by asking for (and getting from him) a hug right there in the restaurant.  I hugged him with both arms, kissed him on the cheek, and told him I loved him--as I try to do every time I see him. 

I'm writing this to apologize, but only in a half-hearted way. 

I probably embarrassed Scott tonight, and I know I've embarrassed him in other ways on many past occasions, and I am sorry when I do that. I am sorry, Scott, if I did it tonight.

The thing is, though, that I'm not at all sorry for hugging him.  I grew up without a father in a family that was terrible at touching.  When Mom would hug me, I'd turn stiff as a board, unsure what to do.  I never had a hug from a father. 

When we had kids, I swore that though I was sure I'd screw up many things, I would not screw up in this same way.  I would take every chance I got to hug my kids, kiss them, and tell them how very much I loved them.  I never want Scott or Sarah to wonder for an instant how much I love them; I want them to know that no fiercer love has ever existed in this or any other universe. 

So, Scott, I'm sorry I embarrassed you, but I'm going to keep doing it.  You'll just have to deal with it. 

I'm going to hug you and kiss your cheek and tell you I love you often and for as long as I am alive. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The song I heard in more places in Europe than any other

Amazingly, it was this oldie, which just keeps on chugging.

I'm kinda glad it does.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Sabbatical FAQs: Living out of a carry-on suitcase for six weeks

In this last entry in the series of answers to common questions, I address queries about living out of such a small suitcase for such a long time.

Did you really live out of one carry-on suitcase for six weeks?

Sort of.  I also had a ScotEVest coat and a backpack.  Aside from the coat, though, all clothing and shoes, aside from what I was wearing, and my toiletries fit in the international size carry-on bag. 

What clothing did you take?

Counting what I was wearing at any given time,

·      two pairs of identical black pants
·      two identical black UnderArmour short-sleeve shirts
·      three long-sleeve shirts (these were supposed to be thin shirts designed for travel and easy washing, but my plan for those fell through and so I ended up taking three Peterman shirts I already had)
·      five pairs of black socks
·      five pairs of underwear
·      six handkerchiefs (plus two spares in the backpack)
·      a small dop kit
·      two pairs of identical black tennis shoes with no logos, shoes that passed as dressy enough in multiple three-star restaurants
·      one Travelsmith black sport coat designed for travel (lightweight, wrinkle-resistant), which I needed for nice restaurants
·      one black cashmere sweater, to wear under the sport coat in nice restaurants

Sharon had told me I could get by with one pair of shoes, and she was right; I never wore the second pair. 

How often did you wear things?

Until they were dirty or smelly enough to bother me. 

What then?

A combination of hand washing and paying exorbitant prices for hotel laundry services. 

Any problems?

Don’t read this if you don’t want a little information about my personal odor. 

Oddly, the UnderArmour shirts did not handle sweat at all well.  They claim to be odor-resistant, but with me they were exactly the opposite.  My odor when I sweat is not normally strong, but, wow, was it strong in these shirts.  I mean the kind of strong that I could smell myself coming, the kind of strong that made me feel bad for anyone sitting within three feet of me.  Maybe it was the change in soap or washing the shirts in different detergent; I’ll know more on that after I’ve been home for a bit.  But, based on my experience, as much as I loved the thinness and wicking ability of these shirts, I’m not sure I’d choose them again.

Would you pack this lightly again?

Absolutely.  I’m seriously considering changing my standard business travel approach to fit in the same tiny suitcase. 

What do you wish you’d packed that you didn’t?

Over-ear, high-quality headphones (either my Beats or my Bose noise-canceling set), to block out unwelcome conversation and trains, and a small sound bar, because I like music in the air in hotel rooms, particularly when I’m writing. 

What was the biggest downside of this approach?

No souvenirs.  I window-shopped, but I bought myself only one object, a truly remarkable book, because I had no room to carry anything.  So, I’m coming home empty-handed.  I apologize to my family and friends in advance, but there was just no room. 

Why the backpack?

For electronics—phone, mini tablet, and ultraportable—cables, notebooks, pens, documents, and so on. 

No books?

For the first time in my memory on a trip, no.  I simply had no space for them.  I read a bunch of books, but all as ebooks on the tablet. 

How’d that work for you?

Not bad.  I missed and still greatly prefer physical books, but to save the space for a trip, I’d do it again.  Of course, being a collector, it was expensive, because I own paper copies of every ebook I bought. 

How’d you like the ScottEVest jacket?

Overall, I loved it.  On any cool day, and many of my days were cool, I could wear it and carry safely with me everything I might want to have, including wallet, passport, glasses for reading, tablet (if I wanted it), small notebook, pen, and phone. 

I have only two complaints about it.

First, it does not breathe at all.  If the day turned at all warm, I ended up sticky sweaty inside it.  Adding a back vent and vents under the armpits would not jeopardize the jacket’s contents and would make it a far better garment.

Second and less important, the hood, which was wonderful on rainy days, does not tuck well back into its little pouch, because that pouch seals with very little Velcro.  A couple more Velcro strips would make all the difference. 

That said, I’m glad I bought the jacket and recommend it, with those two reservations, to other travelers who want a safe way to have all their key documents and stuff with them at all time. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sabbatical FAQs: How I traveled

As I mentioned in the previous blog entry, while I was in Europe, a lot of folks asked me a lot of questions.  I’m answering the most common ones in a set of three blog entries, of which this is the second.  And, it's a bonus day:  two entries for a May Sunday!

How was it traveling alone?

I’d mentioned to quite a few folks that I was expecting to travel alone.  I’d also offered to a group of friends that if they could live with my rules and trip structure, and if they had the time off and the resources to do the trip, they were welcome to join me.  Jennie did, and we toured together for the whole trip.  Gina joined for most of Amsterdam. 

How were they so lucky?

They agreed to the rules and structure, and they had the time and resources to do so.

What were these rules and structure?

Basically, that I was going to do whatever I felt like doing, and I was going to do it in luxury.  I planned absolutely as little as possible, so I woke up each day with somewhere between no idea what I was going to do and a simple idea, e.g., go see the Louvre some more.  Anyone with me could, of course, make a plan and follow it, but anyone who wanted to stick with me had to live a largely unplanned life. 

Why did you almost always write as “I”?

Because this blog is mine and reflects only my opinions.  I didn’t want to have to represent a consensus or even differing opinions; I wanted to give my reflections on what I’d experienced. 

What made it a luxury trip?

Basically, the hotels I chose and the fact that when I went by train, I rode in first class and, whenever possible, on high-speed trains. 

How’d you get from city to city?

From Raleigh to Paris at the beginning, and from Paris to Raleigh at the end, via American Airlines. 

From Paris to Florence, the train ride would have taken over 12 hours, so I flew on Air Italia. 

From Florence to Venice, via high-speed train. 

From Venice to Vienna, again the train ride would have taken over 12 hours, so I flew on Austrian Airways, operated by Air Moldavia.

From Vienna to Prague, by train.

From Prague to Amsterdam, once again the train ride would have taken over 12 hours, so I flew on Czech Air.

From Amsterdam to Paris, by high-speed train. 

What were these luxury hotels?

Both Paris stays:  The Mandarin Oriental Paris.

Florence:  The first was the Relais SantaCroce, and then when it was booked and I wanted to stay longer, the HotelBrunelleschi. 

Venice:  The Westin Europa & Regina Venice.  (I’d intended to stay at a hotel owned locally, but after checking into three rooms, all with terrible Wi-Fi and all tatty, I left it and went to the Westin, which was marvelous.)

Vienna:  The Ritz-Carlton Vienna.

Prague:  The Mandarin Oriental Prague.

Amsterdam:  The Sofitel Legend The Grand.

I may rate the hotels on different criteria in a later blog entry.

Why didn’t you name the hotels earlier?

I liked the feeling of people not knowing where I was, and if someone was looking to track me down (e.g., for work), I wanted to restrict them to email or phone.  I didn’t want to be able to receive any packages or surprise visitors. 

You’ve mentioned before traveling in Europe on the cheap, and now you’ve traveled in luxury.  Which do you prefer?

Luxury.  No doubt.  I’ve loved all my European vacations, but staying in great hotels makes everything easier and more comfortable, and I intended to spoil myself this trip. 

Was it worth what you paid for it?

From a “look at how much good you could have done with that money” perspective, certainly not.  For me, for this trip, which very well might end up being the European trip of a lifetime for me, absolutely.  And, I’d saved up for years for it, so I haven’t hurt my financial situation by doing it. 

How much did you spend?

I’m always amazed that people will ask this, but they do.  I’m not going to answer this question, because I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business. 

Sabbatical FAQs: Health and physical stuff

In the course of the six weeks I was touring around Europe, a lot of folks asked me a lot of questions.  I answered some in email and filed away others for later.  I’m going to use this and a couple of other blog entries to try to answer the most common ones.  I’ll start with the many questions about my health and appearance.

What’s up with the short hair in that kitchen photo?

Before I went to work at the Shepherd’s Table Soup Kitchen, I asked Gina to cut my hair shorter than I’ve worn it since middle school, so that as it grew out during the trip I would not turn excessively shaggy.  As it turns out, I liked the really short cut, so I might ask her to repeat it.  Or not.  I don’t think a lot about my hair.  

In that one photo, you look like you’ve lost weight.  Have you?

I wouldn’t rely on any of the scales in any of the hotel rooms, so I can’t be sure, but I believe I’ve lost a little.  I think this because I’m now wearing my belt two notches tighter, and the notches are about an inch apart.  So, the odds are good that I’m down at least somewhat.

What diet did you use to lose the weight?

I didn’t follow any strict diet.  I tried not to eat when I wasn’t hungry, and I tried to keep most meals simple.  Most days, lunch would be a simple sandwich, and dinner would be a bowl of pasta and, if I could get it, a salad. 

That said, I ate desserts most days, though on many of them the dessert was the smallest cup of gelato on offer. 

I also ate quite a few large multi-course meals, though probably no more than one a week. 

I also walked as much as possible.  I have no clue how far I walked each day, though I joked often about trying to make sure I walked “a mile” each day.  I didn’t walk fast, but I avoided taxis whenever reasonably possible and just put feet to (uneven) pavement. 

In a show I saw at the Carolina Theater, Henry Rollins described the basics of dieting as requiring only seven words:

Eat less.
Eat better.
Move your body.

I vaguely and unintentionally, but not religiously, followed Rollins’ advice. 

Are you healthy now?

No.  Far from it.  I’m healthier, in that I am at least somewhat lighter and I can now walk all day without feeling it; on the first day in Paris, a long walk left me sore and exhausted.  I’ve also slept a ton (though not on my last night in Paris), and so I feel better both physically and mentally.

I am far from healthy, however, because I’m entirely too heavy and in nowhere near the physical condition I should be.  Getting into shape will be a major focus area for me for the next couple of years, which is how long I estimate it will take me to get into even half-decent shape. 

What’s your plan for getting in shape?

Right now, I have resolve but not a lot of plan.  I’ve also learned that the plans I talk about tend to be ones that I don’t succeed at, so I’m going to stay mum on this topic for a while.  If I can implement something that works, and if I can stick with it for a while, I may discuss it later. 

So, stay tuned. 


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