Sunday, July 30, 2006

Mission Accomplished

Visiting the Alamo was a given on our trip. It was one of the three destinations we planned our trip around (the others being the Grand Canyon and Graceland). We were told to expect to be underwhelmed by the Alamo itself. True, it isn’t very large, but it is such an iconic place in the American experience that nothing could detract from it.

My wife was expecting something more fort-like, but I knew it had been a Spanish mission. What I didn’t realize was that it had been decommissioned as a religious mission before it had been militarized. The museum portion of the exhibit had a good History Channel synopsis of the history of the Alamo as well as well-done exhibits that put the mission and it’s role in the Texan Revolution into context.

The Alamo and the remaining surrounding grounds are administered by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas which does not receive any government funding in any way. So we bought some souvenirs for our share of the upkeep. Even if you don’t want to buy tacky tourist crap, the gift shop is worth visiting because it has an incredibly detailed diorama of the battle and a display case of Bowie knives.

On a whim, since we had a short driving day, I had read that there were other missions in the area operated by the National Park Service, so I called the number in the Texas Tourism book and learned they were less than five miles from the Alamo.

Mission San JoseThe first mission we visited was Mission San Jose which is the central site for the Park and had a visitor center with exhibits and information. The San Jose mission is also the best restored and largest of the four missions. The church is part of an active parish despite being on Park Service land. The altar and chapel have the ususal votive candle set up for donations. The mission has a small religious store and actively solicit denotations. The grounds are large and well groomed. One corner of the courtyard has a group of cacti growing on the roof of an overhang.

Mission San ConcepcionWe backtracked up north for the second mission, San Concepcion. In contrast to San Jose, this mission has never been restored on the inside and is as close to the original condition of any of the missions. To the side of the chapel was a very beautiful breezeway. This mission, like all the others, were nearly deserted. It was a weekday and very hot, but compared to the Alamo, there was nobody touring the more obscure missions. I understand the historical significance of the Alamo, but these other missions better capture the flavor of the 18th and 19th century Southwest.

Mission San JoseTo get from one mission to another, you can take the main roads or follow a winding road that follows the San Antonio River from mission to mission. For many sections, the river was indistinguishable from a muddy creek. One of the sites in the park is the Espada dam which is the still working dam on the river from the mission era. We followed the river road to the San Juan mission, which has a bell tower that looks great against the clear blue sky. This mission had an outbuilding that was in ruins. At one end of the complex was a wooden cross embedded into a cactus garden.

Mission EspadaThe final mission was Mission Espada which also had a bell tower. The arched esplanade was landscaped with flowers and cultivated fruit trees. Next to the chapel were signs cautioning visitors not to disturb the residences that are next to the chapel. Like the other missions, this is still a working chapel and it seems to still have an order on site, even though I haven't learned which one. The San Concepcion mission had a display board on how the Franciscans trained their missionaries on how to set up a mission like a franchise operation.

I’ve go plenty more pictures of these in this Flickr set so you can compare the missions. And if you are ever in the San Antonio area, make sure to spend some time going back in history on the Mission Trail.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Nosy Meme

I have stayed pretty meme-free lately, but this one is going around (particularly at Harmonica Man and Mooselet, but I’ve seen it a few other places as well) and since I have answered all the questions in my head, I might as well get a blogpost for the effort.

What is your salad dressing of choice?
Bleu cheese, particularly the type that Wendy’s had on their salad bar when they had one. It was thicker and chunkier than any I have ever had since.

What is your favorite fast food restaurant?
Wendy’s, for sentimental reasons since I worked there in high school. When given a choice, I would probably pick Qdaba or Chipotle even if those are technically fast-casual.

What is your favorite sit down restaurant?
The best meal I have ever had was at Nougatine in New York, which is a little pricey and not very close to home. Of the chains, we eat at Bennigans a lot because it is between my son’s high school and our house and has become the unofficial restaurant of the marching band.

On average, what size tip do you leave at a restaurant?
Here’s my system: I calculate 20% of the total bill including tax and then round up until the total bill is an even dollar amount. For example, if the bill is $37.20, 20% is $7.44, but I will tip $7.80 so that I only have to enter $45 into Quicken. It’s what you get when you let an engineer settle the check.

What food could you eat every day for two weeks and not get sick of?
Pasta with butter and cheese.

Name three foods you detest above all others.
Liver. All others pale in comparison. My mother fed it to us whenever my dad was out of town because he wouldn’t eat it either.

What is your favorite dish to order in a Chinese restaurant?
Sweet and sour pork is the answer my family would tell you, but lemon chicken is a very common choice too.

What are your pizza toppings of choice?
Anything, but we usually get ham, mushrooms, green peppers and onions in that order.

What do you like to put on your toast?
I put butter and Kraft® parmesan cheese on it before I toast it.

What is your favorite type of gum?
Big Red™.

Number of contacts in your cell phone?
283. My cell phone doubles as my PDA, so there are a lot of people in there I don’t even have phone numbers for and haven’t talked to in over a decade. Realistically, there are probably only a dozen I have called in the past year.

Number of contacts in your email address book?
See above.

What is your wallpaper on your computer?
Right now it’s a picture of a penguin that a friend of my wife took. I will eventually replace with a picture from my vacation, probably of the Grand Canyon if I can find one that doesn’t obscure the icons. At work I have a replica of my business card I created with Paint.

What is your screensaver on your computer?
None. Don’t believe in them.

Are there naked pictures saved on your computer?
No. And I have checked.

How many land line phones do you have in your house?
7. Six cordless ones and a back-up land-line.

How many televisions are in your house?
Four. One more than occupants. Which is also how many DVD players and computers we have.

What kitchen appliance do you use the least?
We have a fry daddy that has never come out of the box. Our house would shut down without the rice cooker.

What is the format of the radio station you listen to the most?
WTMD is a weird public radio grown-up rock format that closely emulates WXPN in Philadelphia. Or I listen to any of the NPR talk stations.

How many sex toys do you own that require batteries?
I’m a guy. As long as I have a working internet connection, I don’t need batteries. TMI.

What do you consider to be your best physical attribute?
My legs. Since I bicycle, they are actually in shape.

Are you right handed or left handed?
Right handed. What difference does that make?

Do you like your smile?
It’s okay, except it sometimes looks too phony in pictures.

Have you ever had anything removed from your body?
Technically just the undescended testicle, but I still have that.

Would you like to?
Like what? Liposuction? No thanks.

Do you prefer to read when you go to the bathroom?
Every morning I take the Style section of the Washington Post into the bathroom with me. I rarely make it to the comics. Is that enough information for you?

Which of your five senses do you think is keenest?
None of them. They are all bad and getting worse.

When was the last time you had a cavity?
My teeth are stronger than I deserve. I went through college without seeing a dentist and had no cavities. I have had maybe one since college.

What is the heaviest item you lift regularly?
My bicycle. Maybe twenty pounds.

Have you ever been knocked unconscious?
Not that I remember.

If it were possible, would you want to know the day you were going to die?
No. I’m not sure what good could come of that.

If you could change your first name, what would you change it to?
I like yello just fine.

How do you express your artistic side?
Blogging. Photography.

What color do you think you look best in?
Probably blue since I have so much of it, but technically I’m an Autumn and should wear earth tones.

How long do you think you could last in a medium security prison?
Less than a day. The fear of anal rape is the last effective deterrent the penal system has.

Have you ever swallowed a non-food item by mistake?
Probably all the time.

If we weren’t bound by society’s conventions, do you have a relative you would make a pass at?
Nobody is going to answer yes to that.

How often do you go to church?
Whenever my son has CCD class. Right now that’s about once a month.

Have you ever saved someone’s life?
Not that I’m aware of. Unless you count driving my son to the emergency room when his appendix ruptured.

Has someone ever saved yours?
Don’t think so.

Would you walk naked for a half mile down a public street for $100,000?
Sounds like easy money.

Would you kiss a member of the same sex for $100?
Maybe. But there would probably have to be alcohol involved.

Would you have sex with a member of the same sex for $10,000?
First off, that would be infidelity so I can turn it down on that grounds. If I weren’t married, I’d have to find some other excuse because it’s not gonna happen.

Would you allow one of your little fingers to be cut off for $200,000?
Not likely.

Would you never blog again for $50,000?
No. I’d just cheat and find another way.

Would you pose naked in a magazine for $250,000?
Maybe, but the magazine is definitely getting the raw end of that deal.

Would you drink an entire bottle of hot sauce for $1000?
If I could have unlimited water.

Would you, without fear of punishment, take a human life for $1,000,000?
Not for any price.

Would you shave your head and get your entire body waxed for $5,000?
Show me the money.

Would you give up watching television for a year for $25,000?
Not only would I get the 25k, I’d save another grand on the cable bill. I don’t think my family would go along with me, though.

I will regret this moment of meme weakness, somehow someway someday. Tell me what is the stupidest question on this list.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Free Beer: Battle Of The Brewery Tours

In St. Louis, we had two sights to see, the Arch and the Anheuser-Busch Factory. My wife wanted to see Clydesdales and I wanted to drink beer. Two days later while in Denver we thought it only fair to head out to Golden and check out the Coors factory as well. In the interest of comparative shopping, this is how the two factories face up head to head.


The Busch factory complex is full of beautiful hundred-year-old red brick buildings in an otherwise industrial section of the St. Louis waterfront.

The Coors factory building is a pretty non-descript metal building in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The scenery is beautiful, the factory not so much.
Advantage: Busch. You really feel like you are walking through a great institution rather than watching the crappiest beer on earth get processed.

Waiting Area Photo-Op

The Busch lounge has lots of displays of the history of the company, all their products, the theme parks, as well as a Dale Earnhardt, Jr NASCAR race car.

A giant copper kettle sits outside the front door. No sign of the Silver Bullet racer. Inside, the history of the company display does have a picture of Burt Reynolds from Smokey and The Bandit.
Advantage: Busch. Nobody gets out of the waiting room without taking a picture of the car.


The Busch tour goes through three areas of the plant including the cold beechwood aging room, but photography isn’t allowed in the working areas. The walk through the packaging area is done at a slow jog.

Coors shows more of the process, but most of it is done from behind glass observation windows. Still, you get a better feel for how beer is made. And they give out a two-ounce taster half way through the tour.
Advantage: Coors. They do a lot of good subtle selling of why their beer is the better tasting horse piss.

Nobody takes a beer factory tour to hear about hops. They go for Free Beer. At Anheuser-Busch you are allowed two free samples as well as unlimited snacks. In addition to all the Bud and Michelob varieties, they had World Lager on tap and bottles of the fruity Bacardi malt liquors.Coors allows for three free samples, but you have to buy snacks from a vending machine. The free flavors included Coors, Keystone, Blue Moon, and Killians as well as unlimited Coors Non-Alcoholic. They also had Zima in slushie machines. Way tasty.
Advantage: Draw. Nobody can drink all of the samples and still drive after the tour. We just took sips of each of ours and threw the rest away.

Gift Shop
The Busch merch leans towards tailgating accessories and slutwear. Lots of belly shirts, tank-tops and Daisy Dukes available. Seems to fit with the red-neck blue-collar working-class target market.Coors had a much wider variety of apparel and accessories. We bought a Killians Red ball cap and a refrigerator magnet bottle opener.
Advantage: Coors. A much classier mix of items. One shopper was upset that Busch didn’t have anything for toddlers with the Bud logo on it.


Clydesdales. Chicks dig the horses. See this picture to figure out why.

Golden, Colorado is a much nicer place to grab a meal and let the cheap beer buzz wear off than St. Louis.
Advantage: Busch. Not everybody likes beer, so it’s nice to have something else to see. We liked the horses so much, we ended up taking a side-trip to Grant’s Farm to see the main Clydesdale ranch.

Overall Winner: Busch

The factory is gorgeous even if the beer is crappy. We’ll have to make a trip to Milwaukee and tour the Miller factory before we declare a final winner, but Busch gives off a much better sense of history. For all you do, this Bud’s for you.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: What is your favorite factory tour?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jog

The 2006 Yellojkt One Lap Of America has finished and it has to be characterized as a complete success. The summer vacation took:

15 states
361 hours
7,290 miles
298 gallons of gas
1,084 digital photos
1 speeding ticket

As we crossed into Maryland, the rain broke and we could see a gorgeous rainbow leading us home. When we crossed the Howard County line, my son gave out a congratulatory “Woot!” We’re home and rested. Lessons I learned over the past two weeks include:

  • Free internet often means needing your own Ethernet cable.
  • Casinos don’t give you anything for free, including bandwidth.
  • When you are averaging 500 miles a day, the last thing you want to do at night is blog.
  • Teenagers can find someone to IM to anytime, anywhere.
  • It is the humidity, but 100 degrees is hot no matter where you are.

I will not be subjecting my loyal blog readers to all thousand plus pictures, but the best, funniest and most in-focus will eventually make it to my Flickr site. We have a great big beautiful country. I’m glad I got to see so much of it, but there will not be a 2007 Y1LoA. That I guarantee.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Condor Canyon

At one time, every living California condor was in captivity. As the breeding stock expanded, they were slowly released back into the wild. One of the areas they have been released into is the Grand Canyon National Park. According to the National Park Service newsletter guide they hand out at the front gate, about 70 now live in the area.

I really didn’t have much hope of seeing any of these flying dinosaurs. I mentioned condors to my son who had been waiting for us outside the Hopi House gift shop and he said bored, “Yeah, there were two flying around just awhile ago.” He was more interested in eating lunch and taking a nap, not necessarily in that order.

His blasé reaction sent me into video and photo overdrive. We spent the next hour filming and photographing the various condors that were lazily soaring over the main tourist area. About four different condors made and appearance at one time or another, although they are hard to tell apart. I had no idea what they were up to except perhaps hoping one of us tourists would keel over for their lunch.

The National Park Ranger doing children’s programs in the area said that the condors appear at random times and often come in small groups. Her theory is they are as fascinated by us as we are of them. They definitely weren’t afraid of us.

Each condor has a large number painted on its wing and a GPS on its prehistoric claw. Number 72 decided to perch on a ledge just a few feet below the rim trail. He seems particularly photogenic since other people have taken his picture as well.

These massive birds are amazing in a brutally ugly way. A couple of years ago we went to the San Diego Zoo’s Animal Park and hiked all the way to the back to the exhibit areas to see a few sullen condors in captivity. Little did I know that to see these exotic soaring throwbacks in flight I just had to be on the south rim of the Grand Canyon at playtime.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: What is the ugliest/rarest/most exotic animal you have ever seen?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Rocky Mountain High

The AAA/Mapquest directions we had from Denver to Salt Lake City was supposed to take us north to Cheyenne, then west. About 30 miles north of Denver, I-25 was completely shut down from an accident. Looking on a map, I saw that the next exit would take us to Rocky Mountain National Park and across the Continental Divide. Rather than sit in a massive traffic jam, we headed for the mountains.

The route through the park is a gorgeous winding road that climbs up to elevations over 12,000 feet. At one of the meadows, we stopped for a trio of elk that were grazing on the tundra. Once the novelty of the elk wore off, we realized they were everywhere. Anyplace we saw a group of cars pulled off the road, we knew more elk were nearby.

On the far side of the park, was another group of cars stopped for some mountain goats on the face of one of the mountains. Here we got yelled at for blocking the road of a “federal highway” while I took some pictures, but it was worth the view.

Four hours after we started our detour, we found ourselves a net 60 miles west of where we had started the day. That meant a white knuckle ride at dusk through the Colorado River canyon along I-70 and three hours along a two lane road in pitch darkness to make Salt Lake City. Still, it was a detour well worth making.

Blatant Comment Whoring™:
What was the best unexpected sidetrip you have ever taken?

Monday, July 17, 2006

Crossing Kansas

When people heard I was going to drive cross-country, they kept telling me “Wait until you hit Kansas.” Kansas is a long skinny state that is 430 miles end to end, so I knew we had a long drive across, but I was led to expect to be able to tie a brick to the steering wheel and take a nap.

I get my working definition of flat and straight from driving Florida’s State Road 60 between Brandon and Yeehaw Junction. This road is mostly a two-lane ribbon of concrete. Kansas in the eastern half was gentle rolling prairie with lots of cattle grazing land. As it flattened out in the west, it still kept a gentle rhythm. Perhaps people complain because there is not a lot to look at. I found lots of things to see out the window and here are a few of them:

Grain silos. If you grow a lot of grain in your state you need a place to store it.

Really big grain silos. For when the small ones aren’t big enough.

Rusted farm equipment. This picture is a little unfair. There usually wasn’t this much all at once.

Oil rigs. The beaches in Orange County have oil rigs; no reason not to have them in the middle of wheat fields too.

Dirt roads. If the federal government didn’t pave it, Kansas isn’t going to either. You know you are in the sticks when you have to take a dirt road to a Stuckey’s.

And for the record, as far as scenery goes, eastern Colorado should be called western Kansas. Since Kansas, I have determined that the salt flats west of Salt Lake City are the flattest thing I have ever seen. The stretch of I-10 in New Mexico between the border and Dening is about the most desolate stretch of land anywhere. At least the portion of I-80 to Reno has cattle. New Mexico just had tumbleweeds and train tracks.

So I don’t want to hear any more about boring drives. Yes, I do. Tell me what the most boring trip you’ve ever taken was.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Arch Support

We like tall things. And the St. Louis Arch is a Very Tall Thing. It is much taller and thinner than I imagined. It's taller than the Washington Monument, but not as tall as the Eiffel Tower. The Arch is also a lot younger than I realized. It wasn't completed until 1965. I'm not sure I like being older than internationally recognizable monuments.

The real surprise was the trip up to the observation deck. We are used to the office building observation deck where you take the elevator up to the top and there is a platform and a gift shop and maybe even a restaurant.

To get to the top of the St. Louis Arch you climb into a pod that looks like a space ship capsule designed by Austin Powers. Each pod only holds five people and they better get along. If your group is smaller than five, hope that your randomly assigned companions have good hygiene. The trip takes a couple of minutes and the cars are poorly ventilated.

Each tram is a group of eight pods that get pulled like pearls on a necklace up the inside the slender triangular base of the arch. They are inline when people board them, but stack one on top of each other as they go up the hollow inside of the arch.

At the top, the tram cars open onto stairs that go up to the observation deck. The cabin of a wide body jet is bigger than the observation platform. However, the views through the small rectangualr windows are spectacular. You can see the casino boats across the river, the new Busch Field baseball stadium and the courthouse where Dred Scott lost his freedom, and arguably started the Civil War.

The gift shop down in the undergound museum had a book that asked in an essay the rhetorical question "Could we build the Arch today?" It was challenging our lack of will to build bold monuments. I took the question to mean that there is no way this clever but cramped tramway inside a caternary arch would ever past muster in this ADA-accessible world. The Arch would have to be three or four times as wide to accommodate a more conventional vertical transportation system.

The current system seems like an afterthought that is not very comfortable for people of any mobility level. The vision of the Arch came first, and the other functions had to fit in the concept. Today that sort of compromise would not be tolerated. Whether that is good or bad can be debated, but the Arch is an engineering and artistic marvel.

Blatent Comment Whoring: What is the oddest form of transportation you have taken?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Living La Vida iPod

I broke down and bought a new iPod yesterday. This is either my second or fifth iPod depending on how you count them. I bought my first iPod backing April of 2003. That would make me one of the first million people to own an iPod. I’m not exactly bleeding edge but I do tend to be an early adopter.

It was a 20GB second generation model. I had all of one album (Bon Jovi, if you must know) downloaded onto it when I read that the third generation was being released. I indignantly stormed back to the Apple Store and for a “restocking” fee they let me upgrade to the 30GB 3G model. In those early days, I needed a third party software program called xPlay to transfer songs from my Windows machine to the iPod until iTunes for Windows was released.

I went on a frenzy of ripping my existing CD collection, which then it was about 200 CDs. One of my frequent complaints about Apple software is the lack of customizability. They tend to force you to do things the Apple Way. I do not like the Apple music format or file naming convention so I have played with a number of third party rippers and now use Windows Media Player to rip albums to MP3 format at 192 kbps. While I despise having to use Microsoft software when good alternatives exist, WMP has come around to doing CD ripping fairly well. It puts the files in the directories the way I want it to and it can be customized to name files they way I want them. I like my ripped files organized like so:

H:/Artist/Album Title/Artist – SongTitle.mp3

You would be surprised how many software packages make that difficult. When I had my run in with the DRM system on a Foo Fighters album, I was bothered that the pre-ripped songs were sampled at 128kbps and did not have the artist name anywhere in the file name. What? I’m supposed to immediately recognize the artist from the song title? Sheer hubris on the part of the record company.

Since that first Herculean ripping effort, my digital library has grown to over 3500 songs, nearly all of them legitimately owned by me. The security issues with Napster/Kazaa/Limewire and such scare me away from internet petty thievery file-sharing. I have also stocked up on all sorts of iPod gew-gaws and tchotkes. I’m pretty committed to the iPod lifestyle. No Sony wannabes for me.

Despite that, my relationship with my iPod has had continuous undertones of frustration. When my first (or second, you’re counting the one I owned for a week) iPod started skipping and freezing, I took it back under warranty and they replaced it. About a year later, the new one developed a new quirk that took three trips to the store before they diagnosed it as a hard drive crash. This time they charged me a pretty nominal replacement fee. This latest one started getting a shorter and shorter battery life until it would finally not work unless it was started while still in the dock.

At the Apple Store, they said it would be either $68 to replace the unit and it would take several days to get one in stock or they’d give me 10% trade-in towards a new one. The slim, light 60GB model with the color screen seduced me.

I got home to make a few unsettling discoveries. Apple has discontinued FireWire support and my ancient computer only has USB 1.1 ports. The 22GB initial file transfer of my entire library took eight hours. I don’t intend to do that often, or else I need to invest in a USB2.0 card. That is, if I have any slots still available. Also, the top mounted remote control slot on the 3G iPod is no more. That renders the iFM tuner with remote I got for Christmas obsolete. I liked having a remote because I could easily pause it when I ran into my neighbors while walking my dog.

Finally, the color screen has the option of displaying album cover art, which is cool, but the album covers are not in my iTunes database since I rip with WMP. I have to add it the cover art manually, which isn’t hard, but a little tedious. Spot checking most of my ripped albums, I don’t even have album thumbnails for most of them because I ripped the CDs long before that was a standard feature.

In preparation for our epic trip, I bought one of those cigarette lighter powered accessories that lets you broadcast your iPod to your car radio. It’s been extensively field tested by my son using his U2 fourth generation iPod filled with AC/DC and Clash songs. I have also downloaded over 50 hours of podcasts on topics like travel (natch), science, and 80s nostalgia. Whatever we face on the open road, we won’t lack for entertainment.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Ultimate Road Trip

With my son in California for three weeks, it left us with a quandary about what to do with our summer vacation. While the thought of taking off on our own without him was tempting, it didn’t seem fair to him if we went someplace he should see. That’s when my wife got the idea to drive out to California to get him. Since I can’t take more than two weeks at a time, we first had to check the logistics. We had to be in Palo Alto by Friday morning when the session finished. After some triage on places to see we finally ended up with this itinerary:

Saturday:Drive as far west as possible. Get at least past Indianapolis.
Sunday: Tour the Arch in St. Louis. End the day in Kansas City.
Monday: Drive across Kansas. Reach Denver.
Tuesday: Cross the Continental Divide from Denver to Salt Lake City
Wednesday: Go from Denver to Reno.
Thursday: Get an oil change. Press on to Palo Alto and visit an old high school friend in San Jose.
Friday: Pick-up my son and drive to Las Vegas via Pasadena.
Saturday: Go to the Grand Canyon via the Hoover Dam.
Sunday: Tour the Grand Canyon.
Monday: Drive to El Paso.
Tuesday: Drive to San Antonio.
Wednesday: Tour the Alamo. Drive to Dallas.
Thursday: Drive to Memphis.
Friday: Visit Graceland.
Saturday: Arrive home.
Fifteen days and over 7000 miles. An epic road trip that I’m not sure whether or not I’m crazy for trying. I guess if you have to ask, you already know the answer. We are taking all our electronic toys with us, so this should be the best documented trip we have ever been on. I don’t know how much blogging I will be doing, but at the very least I will try to post some updates and a picture or two. We intend to get an WiFi account so that we can check e-mail and such along the way.

The trip should be a good test of family harmony. I will come back with or without a kid and either still married or looking for a good attorney.

Blatant Trip Advice Soliciting™: Given our very brisk pace, is there anything along the way that I shouldn’t miss? I'm particularly interested in good places to eat, especially barbeque, chili, or other local variations.

Monday, July 03, 2006

One Time At Physics Camp

My wife and I have been empty nesters for this past week. Last Sunday morning we put our son on a plane to California. As dedicated readers of this blog know, our family does a lot of traveling, so he is no stranger to airplane travel. Starting when he was about five, my mom or dad would fly up in the summer and escort him back to Florida for a few weeks with them. As he got older, we got comfortable booking a direct flight between Baltimore and Florida and putting him on the plane at one end knowing my folks would pick him up at the other end. He has also flown with us plenty to places like California, France, and Vietnam.

A few summers ago, we made the mistake of visiting the Stanford campus (remember, I like to visit colleges and bookstores on vacation) and took the campus tour. My son liked this whole techie-fuzzie metaphor they spieled, and there is something impressive about standing on a corner where the Gates Computer Science Building is across the street from the William R. Hewlett Teaching Center. He took a liking to the campus and the alleged laid-back California lifestyle and added Stanford to his college wishlist.

This year he took the PSAT which gets him on the mailing list to every college in the country. Many of these colleges also run summer programs for high school students. When Stanford e-mailed him an application for a summer enrichment program, our son expressed an interest, especially since one of the courses was in relativity and physics was his favorite course this year.

The application was fairly involved, requiring essays, transcripts, and recommendations. We told him that if he could get the packet together with a minimum amount of nagging on our part, and he was accepted, we would think about it. Well, he and Stanford both called our bluff and we agreed to send him.

That leads us to getting him out there. There are no direct flights to San Francisco from Baltimore, so we booked a flight with a connection in Columbus and a one-hour layover. When we arrived at the airport bright and early at 5 am to check his luggage, I got real nervous when the e-ticket machine kept telling us to see an agent. It seems the first leg of his flight was delayed several hours and they had to rebook him through Newark. The new itinerary only gave him 15 minutes to switch gates for his connection.

Fortunately in this world of cell phones, we are able to maintain contact across the country. We told him to call us when he was on the plane in Newark and when he was on the bus to Stanford. In the meantime we called the summer program and let them know about the change in flights. We got both calls and know he arrived safely. My wife wants daily phone calls or e-mails from him, but I don’t know how often that will happen. One night he called us from the middle of a game of four square to say he couldn't talk long because it was his turn. That is truly clever passive-aggressive behavior.

Physics Camp lasts for three weeks, which is three weeks he won’t spend in the den slack-jawed playing Warcraft and downloading anime. I think it will be a good experience and hopefully keep him focused on academic goals for the next two years.

We only bought him a one-way ticket. We plan to pick him up on our cross-country road-trip. More about that soon.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

BooksFirst - June 2006

Books Read

jPod by Douglas Coupland
Digging To America by Anne Tyler

Books Bought

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg
The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowel


I’m stealing an idea from LabCat, which is okay because he stole it from Nick Hornby. Hornby put together a book called The Polysyllabic Spree from a series of columns where he list the books he had read and bought the previous month. Strung together they make an interesting profile of a bibliophile.

In perhaps the only way I can be compared to Nick Hornby is that I buy a lot more books than I read. I'm sure I have bought more books in June than I’ve listed here, but I do know these were definitely bought in June. We were at BigBoxOfBooks™ the other Friday night on our family activity and we had a 10% off shopping day from buying too many overpriced highly caffeinated milkshakes at the café. I perused the Buy 2, Get 1 Free table and got carried away. All these books were bought at discount. Now all I have to do is decide which one to read first. I’m open to suggestions.

I am a huge fan of Douglas Coupland going back to Generation X, but my favorite book of his is Microserfs. I am not in the IT profession, but my background is geeky enough to relate to these people. jPod is Microserfs set in a computer game company and played for metafictional absurdity. Coupland is a deus ex machina character in his own book and he deliberatley writes himself as an evil manipulator. The book is decidedly post-modern and suffers from the formatting absurdities that the digital typesetting revolution has unleashed. There is a mish-mash of font styles and types everywhere.

I think Coupland is trying to snapshot the state of pop culture in a way John Updike did with his Rabbit Angstrom books. Every chapter has at least one pop cultural simulacrum of a snack food label or an eBay auction. It’s fun and quick and makes you feel smarter than you really are if you get even half of the inside jokes. For a truly zen experince try the official jPod website.

I started reading Anne Tyler in college when the girls in the apartment two doors down all went through a binge. Now that I live in Baltimore, reading Anne Tyler is as much de rigueur as watching John Waters movies. This time around her emphasis is not so much on quirky Baltimorons as it is quirky ethnic characters, and nobody does quirky better than Anne Tyler.

The story involves several years in the lives of two families that adopt Korean orphans on the same day. One of the couples is a modern Iranian couple that still has strong ties to their home country through their reluctant matriarch, Maryam Yazdan. Much of the book has to do with the “will they or won’t they” courtship between her and the other couple’s widowed father.

I wonder if Anne Tyler has ever written an explicit sex scene in any of her novels. [Spoiler Warning:] In Back When We Were Grown-Ups, Rebecca Davitch goes so far as to put on some new lingerie in anticipation of getting busy with her new beau, but they get in a fight and she nearly literally kicks him to the curb. I think that is nearly as close as any Anne Tyler main character gets to having sexual urges and acting on them. [/end spoiler]. I’m not expecting hot and heavy prose from Tyler, but for a writer that specializes in borderline dysfunctional families, an awful lot of the family-making happens off-screen.

Since I stole this blogpost idea, that makes it officially a meme. My contribution is the catchy title. I like BooksFirst because it plays on my intent to make it my first post of every month while also editorializing about my feelings towards literature. Feel free to steal, adapt, and play with the idea. If it catches on I may have to invent some logos and buttons and ribbons. Until next month, remember to keep BooksFirst.