Parallel Universe

As I mentioned at Get Rich Slowly the other day, I’ve discovered the bus.

I can recall riding the bus when I was just a boy (so before the age of two — right, Mom?), and I rode it once in high school to visit Paul Carlile when he was in foster care, but I’ve never ridden it as an adult. I’ve been on buses in other cities — just not in Portland.

What took me so long?

I was sort of in a panic Wednesday when I learned that the routine service on my new (used) Mini would keep the car in the shop overnight. How would I get home? Eventually I realized I could take the bus.

And I rode the bus back into the city on Thursday. A fifteen minute walk to the bus stop at Oak Grove and McLoughlin, a twenty minute ride, and bam! There I was at 4th and Washington.

I love it.

I had a sense of exhilarating freedom as I sat in O’Bryant Square just killing time. I know this probably sounds lame, but it’s liberating to not have a car downtown. I didn’t have to worry about parking. I could wlak where I wanted and take as long as I wanted. I could watch the skateboarders, and the mounted police (and the bicycle police), and the businessmen eating Chinese takeout on the park benches. I could sit there and write.

Sure, I could do all of those things if I’d driven downtown, too. But I wouldn’t. I’d be in a completely different mindset. It’s as if when I stepped on that bus I entered a different world — a parallel universe.

Later in the day, I met my friend Ramit for lunch at Kenny and Zuke’s. He was in town from San Francisco to promote his new book. I lingered a long time, chatting with our readers (especially Davy and Kinley), and then walked up to the Mini dealer to get my car.

The whole time, I felt like I was in a strange and wonderful alternate universe. All because of public transportation.

(I’ll admit, though, that it felt good to drive home!)

2009 Mini Cooper S Convertible

Why do I torture myself. I’ve spent the evening watching YouTube videos of the 2009 Mini Coopers. Videos like this:

Boring? I think not. Expensive is more like it. Every time I let myself get into a Mini Cooper reverie, I come close to buying one. Make no mistake: my next car will be a Mini. But I’m going to be good, and either save until I can afford it, or wait until my Focus dies.

I just wish the Focus would dies soon. Like tomorrow.

(Note: I’ve never been a “car guy”. But I have a deep and driving passion for the Mini.)

In Which I Have No Taste

There are things that everybody else loves but which, whether due to character flaw or discerning taste, I do not. I’m always baffled by this phenomenon.

Recently, for example, I decided that I’d waited long enough. After five years, I was ready to watch The Lord of the Rings films again. Surely they had improved with time and distance, right?

I was disappointed to find that they had not. The pacing was still glacial. The music was still omnipresent, as were the special effects. (“This is more cartoon than film,” I thought at one point.) I couldn’t even make it out of The Shire.

Then Kris decided that she wanted to watch the series over the Thanksgiving holiday. While I worked in my office, I could overhear the screeching Nazgul and thundering orcs and the omnipresent music. When she started the third film, The Return of the King, I sat down to watch with her. This had, after all, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2003.


I hated it. I’m trying not say “The Return of the King is awful” because I know that implies that I am some sort of universal arbiter of taste. But it’s hard. I really want to say it. I do not like this movie — not one bit.

And so there are things that everybody loves but which I do not.

The books of Barbara Kingsolver are another example: brightly-painted straw men (and straw women) dancing across a broken stage. Every time somebody proclaims Barbara Kingsolver as her favorite author, I want to shake this person and shout, “What on earth is wrong with you?” (I also want to hand her Proust, which is probably further evidence of my pathology.)

Other examples: House, Friends, beach volleyball, cream cheese, and blog entries that are simply lists of dozens (or hundreds) of “tips”. And, finally, the book that made me start this tirade: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

For the past five years, friends and total strangers, when they learn that I’m a writer, are inclined to gush, “Have you read Bird by Bird? It’s wonderful!”

No, I haven’t. But I’ve tried many times. I usually make it to the end of the introduction. I want to read the book — so many people I know think it’s wonderful! — but I’m tripped time and time again by the author’s twee turns of phrase, by her constant attempts to be cute and funny. With me, a little of this goes a long way, but a lot of it goes nowhere.

Today at 43folders, Merlin Mann wrote that real advice hurts. This is a brilliant salvo against a type of blog entry that is currently very popular, but which offers nothing to the world: the afore-mentioned lists of dozens (or hundreds) of “tips”. Mann writes:

In more instances than we want to admit, tips not only won’t (and can’t) help us to improve; they will actively get in the way of fundamental improvement by obscuring the advice we need with the advice that we enjoy. And, the advice that’s easy to take is so rarely the advice that could really make a difference.

This is something I’ve been wrestling with at Get Rich Slowly. For a long time, I too, like Mann, was a purveyor of tips. And I still believe there’s a place for tips. A limited place. More and more, though, I think that tips address the symptoms and not the disease. They lead to a belief that there are easy answers. But you know what? There aren’t any easy answers — at least not often.

Anyhow, Mann leads his article by praising Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Once again I thought to myself that I should give the book a try. So, once again, I sat down and read the introduction. And, once again, I hated it. Sample:

I believed, before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem.

This did not happen for me.

Imagine that passage repeated for 21 pages and you have some idea of what it’s like to read the “introduction” to Bird by Bird. If you like that sort of thing — and obviously, many people do — I recommend the book to you. I’ll even loan you my copy. But for me, this stuff is hard to swallow. I don’t find it cute or funny or informative. I just find it annoying.

Is this a character flaw? Is it discerning taste? I don’t know. I tell myself that I’ll just suck it up and read the damn thing, but I don’t know if I will. At least it’s not Barbara Kingsolver.

Star Trek Trailer

I have such mixed emotions about the upcoming Star Trek prequel film:

Yes, it looks exciting, but it doesn’t look like Star Trek. Yes, I like J.J. Abrams sometimes, but the man cannot end things, and he’s on record as not liking Star Trek in the first place. (I think I read somewhere that he took this gig because he though it would be foolish to pass it up.) Of course I’ll go see it. But I’m not expecting it to be any good.

Connections to the Cosmos

Over the past few years, I’ve accumulated a lot of Amazon credit by selling books on my various web sites. The problem is, I accumulate it faster than I can spend it. Sometimes I buy comics. Sometimes Kris buys something for herself. But mostly it just sits there, unused.

Today I decided to splurge a little with my untapped wealth. I picked up (used) DVD copies of two of my favorite television series, series I haven’t seen in more than a decade.

First up, James Burke’s Connections. When I first saw this series in 1993, it blew my mind. Over 10 episodes, Burke traces the history of everyday objects: nylon, plastic, computers. Trust me: it’s much more exciting than it sounds. In fact, I’m a little giddy at the prospect of watching this again.

Here are the first ten minutes of the first episode:

Okay, that’s not fair. Here are parts two, three, four, five. (And you can find the entire series on YouTube, though surely not legally.) See also: James Burke’s Fan Companion.

I haven’t seen the second series since 1983 (or before!). Carl Sagan’s Cosmos has had a profound influence on my life. It’s imbued with a sense of wonder that’s almost child-like, but at the same time reaches the pinnacle of human knowledge. I love it.

Here’s the beginning of the first episode:

And the end of the same:

Most especially, I love the music. I have three copies of the Cosmos soundtrack on CD. There are two different versions — the long version would be great but it has annoying segues between tracks. I also own the soundtrack on vinyl and cassette tape. (This soundtrack is awesome, but it’s out of print. The regular soundtrack goes for $85 on Amazon, and the two-disc set goes for $200. Amazing.)

You can find most (not all) of Cosmos on YouTube, too. (This excerpt is amazing.)

Anyhow —

Today I splurged on 23 hours of the finest intellectual stimulation I could find. I can’t wait for these boxes to arrive on my doorstep.

Building Great Sentences

This is how geeky I am (as if you all needed another example).

For years, I’ve bemoaned the fact that I’ve been unable to find a good college-level grammar class to take. All of the college-level grammar classes around here are remedial. I don’t want a remedial grammar class. I want an advanced grammar class that really gets into the nuts and bolts of the stuff.

As you may know, I’m a huge fan of The Teaching Company. This company offers college-level courses via compact disc and DVD (and, now, audio download). They’re great. Robert Greenberg’s “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” is marvelous, and I recommend it to anyone. Well worth the $95 download.

As much as I love these courses, I try not to look at the catalog when it comes. I’m a frugal fellow, remember, and I don’t need to go out of my way to find reasons to spend money. Hell, I already have several courses from The Teaching Company that I haven’t finished auditing yet:

Today when I received the monthly Teaching Company e-mail solicitation, I dragged it to the trash, just like always. But as I did, something caught my eye: a course called “Building great sentences: Exploring the writer’s craft”.


As you can probably guess, there were mere microseconds between me noticing that and actually downloading the lectures. That’s right — I am so geeky that I would, without hesitation, pay $35 to download a 12-hour series of lectures on how to write sentences.

Now I’ve got to find an excuse to listen to this course. Anyone up for a trip to Boise and back? I’ll provide the wheels. And the listening material.

A Gold Medal in Boring

I find NBC’s Olympic coverage maddening. Asinine, really. I’ve always been a huge fan of the Olympics, and I like Bob Costas. So I’m willing to watch television for the first time since the Academy Awards last winter. But NBC doesn’t seem to care.

Everything here in Portland is tape-delayed. Events that could be live — like the women’s gymnastic all-around competition — are instead delayed three hours, putting them far past my bedtime. Why not run West Coast coverage from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m., NBC?

And why so much frickin’ beach volleyball? Is the sport really that popular? I don’t mind watching a match or two, but every single night? Ugh. Same with Michael Phelps. I admire what he’s done, and I’m glad to watch the races, but yesterday NBC not only ran a half-hour interview with Phelp, his mother, and his coaches, but they re-ran the same damn interview a few hours later. I would have rather watched archery! Or the equestrian events.

I would dearly love for some other network to outbid NBC in the near future so we can have a taste of what competent coverage might be like.

Gros Manseng

Kris’ parents were in town last week. While they were here, we took them to some of our favorite restaurants. (We didn’t get to Pok Pok — maybe next time.) On Sunday night, we dined at South Park for the first time in two or three years.

South Park has altered its menu a little since the last time we were there. There are fewer choices, but each one seems more interesting than before. They still have the paella, though, and so I ordered it. First, though, I had a plate of fruit and cheese. I asked the waitress to bring me a wine that would match.

She chose a 2007 Alain Brumont gros manseng/sauvignon blanc blend. No, I’d never heard of gros manseng, either, but I love sauvignon blanc. (It’s my favorite white.)


I took one sip of the wine and was floored. I’m not a wine snob, so I can’t tell you what about its nose and notes. All I know is that it was crisp and refreshing — perfect for a summer cheese plate. (The cheese plate was good, too.)

When the paella came, I was a little startled to see that it was nothing at all like South Park’s old paella. Formerly, it had been almost soupy. Now it’s dry — seafood and rice. Don’t get me wrong: it’s good, if a bit too laden with shrimp. (I only tolerate shrimp — I’d rather have more mussels in my paella.)

“Can you bring me a wine to go with this?” I asked the waitress. She seemed puzzled, so Kris said, “Just bring him another glass of that.” And she did. Yum.

On Monday, I did a very non-J.D. thing. I bought a case of the 2007 Alain Brumont gros manseng/sauvignon blanc from Liner & Elsen. The only case of wine I’ve ever bought before was three-buck Chuck at Trader Joe’s. I’ve never found a wine I liked so much before, though.

“I feel decadent buying a case of wine,” I told Kris.

“It’s fine,” she said. “You like it. You’ll have fun sharing it with other people. I think it’s good to buy a case because it saves you a little money.”

She’s right of course, so while I was at it, I also ordered a case of the Domaine St. Michelle blanc de noir sparkling wine, which Marcela and Pierre introduced us to last spring. That stuff is yummy, too.

Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars

Kris and I met Dave and Karen on Sunday to see the new Indiana Jones movie, The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This was a fun nostalgic throwback for me because I saw the first two Indiana Jones movies in the theater with Dave when we were much younger. (Much younger.)

Though I had hopes for the new film, they weren’t very high. I had seen the trailers, which promised new-style George Lucas instead of old-style George Lucas. (Translation: plenty of improbably CGI effects in place of story and characterization.) I’d also read how Lucas’ original idea for a new installment in the franchise was called Indiana Jones and the Saucer Men from Mars.

Let me state up front that I did not hate Crystal Skull. After my criticism of Peter Jackson’s Helm’s Deep, many people thought I hated that film. I didn’t. I just wish it had been better. And that there’d been one-tenth the CGI. (I did, however, hate Attack of the Clones.) I liked the new Indiana Jones movie, but only mildly. I don’t ever need to see it again.

Now I know many of you will tell me, “When you watch a movie like this, you should just enjoy it. You should turn off your brain and have fun.” But my brain doesn’t work like that. I can’t just shut it off. Besides, there are plenty of smart action flicks out there — why should I compromise just so filmmakers can have a license to be sloppy?

The acting in Crystal Skull was mostly okay. Karen Allen, who returns as Marion Ravenwood, is rather clumsy, but everyone else does a good job. Cate Blanchett makes a delicious Russian villain, though I get the impression that several scenes with her were left on the cutting room floor. Shia LaBeouf also does a fine job, taking the baton from Harrison Ford and opening the door for twenty more years of Indiana Jones films.

But my real problem, as usual, is with the script. I don’t like the script, neither on a macro-level nor a micro-level.

On a macro level, the story is sloppy. It feels like a patchwork, as if it were made up of several different ideas grafted together. Certain scenes go on far, far too long. The climax is lame in a George Lucas sort of way. The film just lacks an overall sense of cohesion that I would have liked to see.

But most of the problems occur at the micro level. This is yet another movie in which the filmmakers have become so obsessed with the neat stuff they can do (with CGI, of course) that they forget to be sure things make sense. Some examples:

  • At the beginning, the story focuses on the hunt for a relic lost inside a vast warehouse. “It’s a powerful magnet,” Indiana Jones declares, and to prove his point, he tosses metal stuff into the air. Look! Magic! The metal stuff is pulled toward wherever the lost relic is! And once the relic is discovered, we see that its magnetic force is so strong that it tugs at the dangling light fixtures and at guns and at other objects. Fine. But why isn’t it exerting this magnetic force all the time? Why is it only magnetic when the plot needs it to be magnetic?
  • Here’s a small spoiler. At the end of the extended introduction, Indiana finds his way to a strange small town in the middle of the dessert. He’s stumbled upon a nuclear experiment. When he hears a countdown broadcast over loudspeakers (why? to whom is it being broadcast?), he quickly tucks himself into a lead-lined refrigerator. Why? How does he know to do this? Worse, when the nuclear explosion occurs, the town is incinerated. Everything is vaporized. Except for the refrigerator containing Indiana Jones. That is thrown into the air for miles before it lands outside a prairie dog mound (without startling the prairie dog that lives there). Indiana tumbles out unharmed. Sorry. I can suspend disbelief with the best of them, but I can’t take it to the level of stupid.
  • Later in the film, a caravan of trucks is making its way through the Amazon jungle. (Well, it might not actually be the Amazon jungle, but it’s close.) There’s a big tree-cutter machine in front slicing down the overgrowth so that the other vehicles can pass. This makes no sense. When it cuts trees, the trees fall, right? Don’t they just fall into the path of the oncoming vehicles? And what about the stumps. Later, the vehicle caravan devolves into a race through the forest. I could buy this in Return of the Jedi because everyone was riding speeder bikes which had no contact with the ground. I can’t buy it here. And I can’t buy it when the race moves to the edge of a CGI-cliff, a cliff miraculously free of rocks and boulders.
  • Did you know that it’s possible to swing from vines like Tarzan at speeds much faster than those obtainable by jeeps?
  • The titular crystal skull apparently has the mass of a plastic resin skull. Shocking.

That’s enough. I don’t have all day. This movie just feels like a Roland Emmerich-like production in which appearance matters more than substance. That’s a valid choice, but you know what? Movies made this way do not stand the test of time.

Again, I did not hate this movie. I had an okay time. I enjoyed the motorcycle chase. I liked Cate Blanchett’s villainess. I thought the story showed glimmers of promise. And I’m not saying that I expected the film to be a classic. I just wish it had more of the old George Lucas in it instead of the new.