86- Codex Alera Series -Jim Butcher

i may be a bad person… i’ve chatted with some people who love Butcher’s Codex Alera series. i powered through the first 1/3 of the first book (“Furies of Calderon”) before i threw in the towel. Really i think it’s just the tempo and style of the writing that throws me.

i am NOT saying this is a bad book by any stretch, just that it’s not a book for me personally. Butcher did some really cool things with the elemental forces of the world, bonding them with users who could then harness that power in a sort of partnership. That hooked me early on, but i managed to spit the hook right out.

Book Club of One grade: N/A. On Butcher’s series don’t ask me. Find a reviewer who finished at least the first book and see what they though. Buuuut, for me it’s a solid pass.

Fajitas and Forgotten Wonder

My wife LOVES Mexican food.

i mean, would go our for Mexican at least 5 times a week.

i have mixed feelings. Once you hit the deserts of the South-West then my tastes turn towards tortillas and beans, but normally i have pretty specific desires for my south-of-the-border inspired fare. i do love me some street-tacos! Or San Diego style Mexican food. There’s just something magical about a burrito or a fish-taco when the air is that perfect low-humidity pacific breeze and all the ingredients are farm-fresh….

Anyway, back to the standard old run of the mill Mexican Restaurant. You know, the kind that every mid sized town has three of anywhere you go in America. Tortilla, cheese, beans, meat in an infinite amount of configurations! Endless plastic baskets of Nachos and those mini-carafes topped off with salsa.  The kind of Mexican restaurant that brings a simple pleasure to the palate of my bride! As she’s methodically consuming her chimichangas (90% of the time that’s what it is, Chimichangas/fried/ with ground-beef. NOT steak: ground beef) and i’m smearing refried beans and guacamole on a tortilla; inevitably a magical dish will pass us by. A dish that’s as beloved by us American eaters as the “Texas-Sized Margarita”.

Fajitas!!!

They don’t arrive on a plate…. oh no! Fajitas come on a pan! A skillet of cast iron. Hot enough to make Hades flinch! They hiss and scream their way to the table where they are set cooking and spewing steam in front of the lucky diner.

i have a vague memory of the first time i saw fajitas in a restaurant. It was a sight! Never before had i seen still-cooking food served up to a customer. Beef, & Chicken, & Onions, & Peppers all sizzling wildly. i was amazed! It was a sight to behold.
Now, i’m pushing a broken nacho chip around the bottom of a salsa dish feeling miserably full and a score of fajitas come out to customers and i never bat a gluttonous eyelid at them. Seen it before!

We have Fajita moments all the time. The Fajita is the showman of standard Mexican food and we’re mostly over it. IF we see someone who’s still excited by Fajitas we look down on them for their simplicity: Bumpkin!  But once, i was amazed by Fajitas!

Once i was amazed by how much information a cell-phone can store!
Or how fast i can download Fail Videos- in a moving car!
Or how crazy it is that we can buy bananas, in Michigan, in January!
Or air-travel… you know, flying science tubes of awesome?
Once i was amazed that i can call you in another country and you hear MY voice nearly instantaneously, even though it was broken down into 1s & 0s and put back together again…

There was a time when more of us were amazed. i’d argue that life was a little better then. When amazing things happen around you life is more exciting, it’s fresher, there’s less drudgery. But fajitas still happen, cruise control still happens, electric lighting still happens! We just have to clear our calloused mental-slate a little and see it again!

 

Heck, i might order that dramatic DIY meal myself soon. i’ll sit in wonder and awe as the peppers hiss at me like angry cats, and i’ll be amazed at Fajitas!

“Transworld’s Attraction Show” – How’d i wind up here?

Transworld Attractions?

Yeah, what a name! What images it conjures up! But i tell you, there were no size 15 stiletto heels on display, No Rupaul devotees workin’ it…

The full name of the show is actually: “TransWorld’s Halloween and Attractions show” and i found myself in St Louis, gateway of the west, in the spring of 2017 because that’s just the sort of job i have!

Not a Halloween sort of job at all really. Somewhere along life’s odd twists and turns i found myself in the laser tag business. So, how do Halloween attractions and laser tag get mixed together? i’ll explain:
So “Haunters” – Haunters is industry-speak: it’s what people that work in the Haunted House business call themselves, when in creepy-Rome… So, Haunters run these booming attractions where thousands of people come to have at least a tiny little poop and pee scared out of them. These thousands of people that come each night inevitably are transformed into long lines of people. Long lines of people get bored waiting to be entertained so some enterprising haunter thought to add a side-attraction of laser tag. You’re stuck in line BUT if you get a ticket to play laser tag you get to step out of line, play for a while, and step right back into line. Crowds are less bored and its a little more money into the coffers that Haunters work their creepy-butts off to fill in a single month every year.

That’s how i wound up in a convention hall bubbling over with nightmare fuel!

Some important information: i do NOT like scary things! Life is scary enough, you know with cancer and rabies and stuff! i don’t watch scary movies because they stick with me like dirty gum in pool-hair. Let me set the bar for you on my tolerance level for anything remotely horror/scary/all-that-creepy-stuff: Years ago friends urged me to watch the very fine movie “Signs” with them. You know pre-snap Mel and family dealing with aliens, that “Signs”. Back when M Night still had street cred. That movie stuck with me for a week. i’d wake up having dreamed that an alien ran across my roof, or was on the other side of my door and i’d just been looking under the crack with a well polished knife. Even writing this i’m getting a mild to moderate case of the heebie-jeebies. That my dear readers is how low my tolerance for scary crap is.

So with that measure in mind picture me as i walked into a good sized convention center full of Haunters, who’s tolerance was on the exact opposite end of the spectrum as mine. This piece of St Louis real-estate for several days a year has the highest population density of SlenderMen on the planet. Also the highest density of animatronic demon faces, aliens, disemboweled humans, and all that creepy ass jazz! There were companies that sold fake blood of all varieties (oh, yes it comes in varieties) & they sold it by the gallon! i saw gallon jugs-o-blood, 5 gallon buckets-o-blood, and even a 55 gallon drum-o-blood!

There are bad discos in the world with far less strobe lights than the TransWorld Halloween and Attraction show. i feel confident in wagering that not many Haunters are epileptics!

The whole thing was an insane amount of sensory overload! With the movement, the lights, the noises (i never thought about how many sound effects go into haunted houses), the mutilated dummies, the costumed stilt-walkers dressed as the aforementioned SlenderMan, all the other creepy costumed people hawking their terror-wares… i’ve never been more relieved to find a laser tag manufacturer as i was that first day at TransWorld.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

All-in-All though it really was an amazing experience. There’s NO way i would have ever just walked into that convention, but my vocation took me there! There are a few nearly universal truths i can tell you about Haunters:
1) Haunters LOVE to party! i’ve been around other professional groups at their conventions before and i know every group thinks they are the kings & queens of living the wild-life while on that yearly business trip but you’re probably wrong. Unless you work for Pablo Escobar the Haunters probably got you beat! While on a public train a fellow convention-goer made sure that i knew he would hook me up with a little bump if i needed it, and gave me the low-down on at least 3 parties. That was on the train leaving the airport, the offers did-not decrease while i was there! Meanwhile, all i wanted to do was eat Gooey Butter Cake and nap.
2) Haunters are also super nice and helpful people! They talk about crazy stuff, like cubic footage in coffins, and edible vs non-edible fake blood but if you wanted to open up a new haunted house 95% of them would give you good solid advise on the do’s and don’ts (and probably shower you with booze and cocaine like you’re an extra on the filming of Wall Street in 1987). If you looked confused or lost they would stop and offer help, not paid workers at the convention offering assistance – other attendees. It was amazing!

Anyway: we got some new laser taggers, DID eat Gooey Butter Cake (thumbs up), St Louis Style Barbecue (more thumbs up), St Louis style pizza (very confused thumbs down???), we saw the Gateway Arch, and walked countless miles through a nicely revitalized downtown St Louis before hoping on a plane and coming back home to work and family. i’d go to St Louis again tomorrow (unless tomorrow is a summer day, been there in the summer- avoid it when it’s hot), hopefully my path will take me to the banks of the Mississippi in the Gateway to the West again again one day.

img_4073
we DID get the taggers we’d come looking for!

100: C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy

silent planet
Out of the Silent Planet: C.S. Lewis

A solid piece of work from a master of theological writings. Lewis’ spirituality doesn’t just creep into his Sci-Fi work, it pours in. This makes for a very interesting take on the Sci-Fi genre!

Of the trilogy Out of the Silent Planet is the strongest work. If you’re interested in checking it out but don’t want to read all three books you can safely read the first and never have to pick up the other two. The other two continue the story-line with the third bringing it to a close though. Silent Planet paints an interesting picture of a solar system teeming with life and Earth sequestered because of it’s sin issue. Perelandra paints a poignant picture of new life, a Garden of Eden scenario. That Hideous Strength brings everything to a close in a darker doomsday must be averted tale.

i really enjoyed the first book, i’d say Silent Planet gets a grade of A, Perelandra is a B/B-, and That Hideous Strength is a C.

Book Club of One Grade: B overall (see above for individual books though). i can’t stress how interesting Lewis’ theological bent makes the series to read. Silent Planet gets a solid recommendation for me, with an urge to press on if you find the opener compelling.

#69: The Farseer: Assassin’s Apprentice -Robin Hobb

Brief review inbound:
The first book of the Farseer trilogy was soundly in the OK territory for me. If i had more time to devote to reading i may continue into the other books, but for now i’ll let the first stand for my dip into this entry on the list of NPR’s Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy books.

The first quarter of the book was difficult for me to get through. It felt flowery and over written. The middle of the book settled into a pace that was much more agreeable. The last quarter of the book was pretty dang good. All the parts combined are what make the book OK for me instead of garnering a higher personal rating.

Hobb does an amazing job building political intrigue, and “The Wit” and “The Skill” are both very interesting takes on magic/telepathy. She builds a world that’s rich with history and social structure which is nice. My biggest obstacle was honestly just the style the book is written in.

Book Club of One Grade: C. It’s a solid one though. If you have a taste for purple prose you can’t go wrong with Hobb (that’s honestly NOT a stab at all, that’s a genuine statement from me). One day, when i’m semi-retired maybe, i might return to these books to see how everything plays out. Between the magicy-mental powers and people getting “forged” (you’ll have to read the book for an explanation on what that means) the concepts are really really good.

Colorado and Amicable Silences

img_9282
The Balcony House- Mesa Verde National Park

My dad is fascinated by the cliff-dwellings out West. This makes perfect sense, he dedicated his working life to building homes for countless people over his career. He’s one of the most proficient and passionate carpenters i’ve ever know and i owe him an incalculable debt because of the skills he’s handed down to me. So these brick and stone dwellings wedged into cliff faces naturally hold a special appeal to him.

He’d been to Mesa Verde a few times but never been able to tour the dwelling sites. Mesa Verde National Park sells tickets, very affordable tickets too, but they have to be purchased on site or in the nearby town of Cortez. The Park has a fine way of handling these ticket sales as you can even purchase advance tickets, up to two days prior to your visit. Alas, his visits to Mesa Verde have all been shall we say “pass thru” visits. Once he was on his way to Alaska on this used RV he had purchased, the second he was on a road trip by car, but neither trip had enough time for him to wait a day or two for a slot he could take. So he’s been fascinated by them but unable to see the dwellings in Mesa Verde up Close.

So talks began for he and i to take a trip to Colorado so he could finally tread where the builders of these sites had tread! We had a weapon in our fight to get the tickets we needed: i have a friend who lives in Cortez! She agreed to acquire the tickets we needed a day or two before so we booked some airfare to Denver and set out!

Denver, you question? Well, if you know where Mesa Verde is located and where Denver is located you probably do question. But yes, Denver. We figured if we were going to fly out to Colorado we may as well make some sort of road trip out of it! So road trip we did! We drove an amazing circuit of Colorado in a rented Buick Regal… Don’t get me started on that car (either i’m getting really old or the Buick Regal isn’t what it used to be! Probably my favorite rental car i’ve ever had and i’ve driven a lot of rentals).

Over the course of our Colorado road trip we drove through Rocky Mountain National Park, Gunnison National Park, of course Mesa Verde National Park. We passed through a handful of National Forests, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and San Juan to name drop three of them. We drove 30 miles on a gravel road that seemed to be leading to nowhere (actually did that a few times, but the 30 mile stretch was the longest one). We drove what i contend is the prettiest stretch of interstate highway in America, Interstate 70 West of Denver. We hit the Aspen leaf change perfectly! All the while that sleek and luxurious rental car carried us safely through it all, even to the top of Pikes Peak where the blizzard-like conditions at the peak meant we could see nothing- also we were the only car we saw that didn’t have to stop and let our brakes cool down at the brake check station! Was it the car… or the driver? i’ll let you decide (it was the driver, who was me).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Of all the amazing experiences we had i don’t think anything was better for me than the morning we crawled through Balcony House and strolled in the grandeur of  Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde. My friend came through with tickets to what she dubbed the two best tours in the park! For me the cliff dwellings were very interesting, but the real payoff was being a part of making sure my father got something he wanted in this life. He’s at that age, and has had a measure of success in life, where if he wants something he probably has it. This man who had worked to feed and house me when i was growing up, who handed down as much of his encyclopedic knowledge of building as my brain would hold, to see him have this experience he’d been so close to having but missed before… That was as good as any Rocky Mountain view.

We spent a lot of time in a car that trip. We’d ride for a while, get out and look at the mighty Rocky Mountains. We’d eat Peanut Butter and Banana sandwiches in a National Park or a National Forest and find something hot to eat every night, sleeping at whatever deal Priceline would find us for a motel that night. We talked about frivolous things, serious things, and we didn’t talk at all. Some hours we’d just ride in amicable silence and watch the mountains crawl past, and it was a magical week in Colorado.

DCIM122GOPROGOPR8051.JPG
My Dad and i- Rocky Mountain National Park

Acadia, a love affair begins!

img_0692
Ocean Path Trail: Acadia National Park

It was Fall of 2015 and my lovely bride and myself were poking around New England. Little side-note: weather conditions in 2015 had peak foliage rolling into the North East abnormally late, a fine piece of serendipity for us as it put us up to our eye-balls in a New England Autumn display! We were visiting a friend in Maine and since we were in the proverbial neighborhood made a few short day-trips into Acadia.

Before Acadia my experience with the National Park Service centered around the Appalachian Mountain chain; primarily the Blue Ridge Parkway (the NPS’s scenic byway through Virginia and North Carolina) and a foray or two to Smokey Mountain National Park as a kid with my parents. Acadia was the start of a much deeper relationship with our National Park Service than i’d had before. As we entered the pay-gate we splurged for the yearly pass and have been yearly NPS pass-holders ever since.

img_0689
Birch, Acadia National Park

We found ourselves smitten by the rugged beauty of the Maine coast-line. The way the mountains roll right into the rich fishing waters of the Atlantic here. We watched the sun rise from the windy ridge of Cadillac Mountain, then watched it set at the Bass Harbor Lighthouse, we walked beaches made of sand and stone. i even got to squeeze in a short road ride inside the park and rode my old trusty CAAD9 up Cadillac just for good measure!

img_0705
CAAD9, 3/4 of the way up Cadillac Mountain!

Being from the Mid-Atlantic region of the East Coast; shorelines have always held little appeal to me. The beaches that are relatively close to where we live are bland flat stretches of sand wrapped in a thick blanket of humidity. To get to them you have to leave the Blue Ridge Mountains (a place dear to my heart) and drive East and away from the vistas that inspire. You pass through the low flat regions of Virginia or North Carolina and into high-traffic, bastions of commerce. i know people absolutely LOVE those Eastern Beaches – evidenced by the population boom of the Norfolk area. Also, the fact that my own sister willingly left the more mountainous parts of the state we grew up in (Virginia) and moved to the beaches of North Carolina, a face that i do try not to hold against her… i try. That context of coast-line made Acadia so absolutely awe inspiring for us. i have a soft-spot for the rugged parts of the world: high mountain passes, craggy granite drop-offs, all of Wyoming, so the rugged beauty of Maine’s Atlantic abutment was good for my heart to experience, and i think it’s safe to say my wife felt the same.

Acadia really was a magical place for us. A place that launched our love of the National Park System. We didn’t get to spend nearly as much time in Acadia as we’d have like to, it’s on our list to make a trip to Acadia and dedicate more time to hiking it’s many trails and spending some more intimate time with this gem. This gem of a National Park that sparked our love of parks!

img_0691
Sand Beach, Acadia National Park

50: Contact -Carl Sagan

img_3641

i do love me some carl! The original Cosmos series being a cornerstone of young me’s love of all things science. i don’t know what i was expecting from Cosmos when i picked it up but what was between it’s covers felt very unexpected.

First, Sagan writes a very developed and compelling female protagonist. i really liked how complex a character she was. She really felt like a real person to me.

The first 80% of the book feel like fiction that’s about science. It shifts solidly into Sci-Fi territory in the end though. None of this is a complaint at all. It was super refreshing to get some serious scientific foundations built for a fine piece of Sci-Fi.

The pacing of Contact was slower than i’m normally drawn to but again, that’s not a complaint at all! The book had the perfect pacing for the story it was telling.

i feel like the aliens we eventually meet are exactly what you get if great minds of science dream about what could be out there! i’m very glad that Sagan turned his mega-brain to this piece of fiction.

He also raises and explores some interesting spiritual questions by the end of the book. Sagan, who is often painted as an Atheist by persons of faith is in fact more of an agnostic and that shines through in Contact.

Book Club of One Grade: A. A real solid A, i recommend this book without reservations,  just know going into it that it doesn’t have the “action-movie” pacing of many modern Sci-Fi works.

 

Peaks of Otter 2019 kickoff

img_3065
The View of Flat Top from the peak of Sharp Top

One windy frigid morning i decided to take a jaunt up one of the most popular hikes in my area: Sharp Top, the rocky topped landmark peak of the Peaks of Otter mountains.

Sharp top is heavily hiked, it’s a great out and back that totals a smidge over 3 miles. It’s steep, rocky, and once you’re past the opening 1/2 mile beautiful. i’ve done the hike many times in my life and this super-cold January hike was easily my favorite one. The parking lot is normally packed with cars; on this hike my car was the only one in the lot. i had Sharp Top all to myself! Once at the peak (which affords views for miles and miles in 360 degrees) the wind was blowing so strong i had to lean 15-20 degrees into it just to stand up.

DCIM122GOPROGOPR8873.JPG
The hike up Sharp Top
img_3232
Sharp Top from the shoulders of Flat Top

i enjoyed my hike up Sharp Top so much i decided to go back and take a stroll up it’s less often hiked sister: Flat Top. Flat Top is actually a little taller than Sharp Top but doesn’t have quite the views. It’s a longer out and back (or you can hike from the Peaks of Otter Lodge to a lot on the Blue Ridge Parkway); my hike was 4.7 miles with 1,680ft of elevation gain during the hike- 417ft more than my Sharp Top hike. It was nearly as cold and to make things more interesting snow had fallen. By the time i reached the peak i was plodding through a foot and half to two feet of fine powdery fluff! The mountain was gorgeous clad in it’s icy duds and once again i had the whole mountain to myself! (there were 10-12 cars in the Sharp Top lot this day though).

img_3215
The Peak of Flat Top: The tallest of the Peaks of Otter

Once i had hiked the two most prominent of the peaks i figured there’d be no better way to kick off a new year than getting the third of the triumvirate: Harkening Hill. Harkening Hill makes up the third peak of the Peaks of Otter, it’s a much easier hike than it’s two larger sisters and i’d never done it before. A co-worker offered to tag-along this time and with the Polar Vortex extending it’s icy grip onto the East Coast we layered up and bagged this loop trail. Once again (probably due to the snow on the ground and the skin shattering temperature and wind-chill) the mountain was a private reservation.

DCIM122GOPROGOPR8927.JPG
The summit of Harkening Hill

We tacked on a side-leg out to the Johnson Farm site and that brought this loop to 4.5 miles with 958ft of climbing. Compared to its two larger neighbors the grade is much easier. I’d suggest doing this one when the trees are bare if you’re able to as it affords more to look at. If the trees were in leaf it still would’ve been a nice amble through the woods but the views would have been few.

This little “mini-goal” to start 2019 off had me drinking in the beauty of the area i live in. Having these popular hikes all to myself made me feel connected to the old weathered backbone of the Blue Ridge Mountains in a special way. i hope that this sets the tone for the year to come for me!

 

My heart is filled with gratitude to live hear among these venerable hills!

DCIM122GOPROGOPR8901.JPG
My frosty stroll on Flat Top.

#61: The Mote in God’s Eye: Niven & Pournelle

The first time i read this book i was a sophomore in high school. It was the recommendation of a close friend of mine, who had it recommended to him by his father. i only mention this because his dad was one of the most interesting people i have ever known. He could cook like a chef, had an amazing library, told us the best dirty jokes, and had a scrap book filled with advertisements and articles with humorous misprints he’d accumulated and cataloged over the years. My favorite being a very old newspaper ad for a brassiere that should have read, “for a great Fit,” but instead read, “For a great Tit!” Needless to say, any book that this man recommended to our young and malleable minds was consumed post haste!

So, it was with a great amount of nostalgia that i picked up the book again. i remembered it being a well written work of science fiction, with a solid story-line, and an interesting take on a new alien race. Digging into the book i found that my nostalgic memory… was totally spot on! Which is a rare thing to happen in one’s life. Normally that thing we remember fondly isn’t nearly as good as we think it is. i recall sitting in an ER waiting room (i had driven an injured friend there) and the first Predator movie came on. A young rippling Arnold commanded a crack team of commandos, explosions, grenades, yelling, CHAIN-MACHINE-GUN!!!!!! i waited with anticipation for my first glimpse at the predator, remembering that magic moment when i was just a nerdy youth. i could not brace myself for the special effects disappointment i faced.  The memory my brain had woven of that cloaked predator running through the jungle made the actual footage just horrible by comparison…. But Mote In God’s Eye was not a cloaked predator event in my life.

A few things stand out about this book for me, 3 actually:

  1. The plot is very well written, the characters aren’t pools of depth, but most do have clear personalities. The overarching story is really really good. It’s got so much to say about it: There’s discovery, and science, and politics, and aliens that are really alien.
  2. Those alien aliens: Niven & Pournelle really built an alien race that is unlike humans. i’m a huge Star-Trek fan but my one gripe with the world of Trek is that everyone is just a human with a rubber thing on their head. Moties are NOT human, they have 3 arms, and a caste system, and they think differently. It’s nice that the aliens just aren’t re-skinned humans.
  3. The book was published in 1974, and as i’ve mentioned in reviewing other reads, i think reading Sci-Fi written in a different era shows us things about the era it was written in. Conventions on marriage and sexual relations resound with early 1970’s Americana thought processes.

i’m really glad that this book made NPR’s top 100 sci-fi/fantasy books of all time. This project meant that i picked up a book that i loved as an adolescent and i love it still today.

 

Book Club of One Grade: A. Mote gets a solid A from me. Pacing is brisk, story is good, aliens are amazing. If you love science fiction take the time to read this gem.

 

i’d like to devote this Book Club of One, NPRs top 100 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books review to John Philpot, the man who suggested this book to his son, and then his son suggested it to me. Your sense of humor, your intelligence, and the fact that you always made time to chat with us when we were 14 year old knot-heads had some lasting impact on my life! i hope that you’re somewhere in the ether telling somebody a really good risque joke right now!