Sunday, April 29, 2007

Growing Grass

Some people spend significant amounts of their week cultivating a lawn that can rival a putting green. At the height of the summer, I know people that look forward to spending hours mowing their multi-acre lawns two or three times a week on their rider mower that is equipped with a Bose sound system and a beer cooler behind the seat. It is their refuge and their one moment to be truly alone. Their lawn is their hobby and they truly enjoy the time communing with their piece of the American Dream. I am not one of them.

Lawn work is not one of my favorite activities. My rule of thumb for lawn care is that the technology used should allow for a full mow in less than an hour. When I owned a 1/3 acre yard, a self-propelled mower filled the bill. For lawns more than half an acre, a riding mower is justified. If you have more than an acre, get those double deck mowers the highway maintenance crews use.

Fortunately, I now live in a townhouse with a miniscule amount of greenery. The plantable area in my front yard is about 10 feet by 25 feet. That includes the tree in the center and the mulched flower bed around it. The backyard is bigger at about 20 feet by 50 feet. This totals less than 0.03 acres. Using my rule of thumb, a reel mower should be enough for this lawn. But since I wanted to make sure my wife and kid had opportunities to share in the experience, I went and found the smallest, cheapest gas mower sold at BigBoxOfTools. I went with a gas mower because it was cheaper than an electric mower and I knew that with an electric one I would eventually run over the cord. As it is, my electric edger is a constant hazard in my hands.

The problem with a lawn as small as mine is that it is hard to buy supplies in quantities appropriate for the task. The smallest bag of fertilizer would be about ten years worth of treatments. A bag of grass seed would do my entire neigborhood. I even have a hard time using an entire bag of mulch, let alone the tractor trailer deliveries some people need every spring.

The problem with my grass is quality not quality. When we moved in, the lawn was pretty scruffy. In the Darwinian struggle going on in the backyard, the fescue and Kentucky bluegrass was losing badly to the dandelions and chickweed. My wife got tired of hand pulling weeds and got talked into an annual contract with ChainLawnService. Once a month they would come around to pretend to pour chemicals on my lawn and plant a little plastic flag in my yard. They would also leave a note explaining what other chemicals I needed that weren’t covered by the annual contract.

After two years of that, I got tired of bills coming in February for treatments they allegedly provided while my entire yard was covered under a sheet of ice. This year I am back on my own to keep the lawn green and full. With a wet spring, the lawn is coming in nicely except for one patch I kept stepping on all winter to avoid the skating rink called my driveway. I went to the leftover lawn supplies and found enough grass seed, fertilizer, and peat to cover up the bald spot. We'll see if it is filled in by the end of the summer.

I think the two years of industrial treatment have helped since my grass is coming in thicker and darker than my neighbors. This is overkill in my mind. My only real goal is to not lose newspapers in the weeds. My wife and I are still too young for those communities where the lawn care is thrown in and someone else does the mowing, trimming, raking, mulching, feeding, weeding, and futzing. I can't wait for the day.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: How long does your yard take?

Friday, April 27, 2007

When Harry Crossed Delancey

Earlier this month when we were done chaperoning this year's band trip (where we saw the Naked Cowboy) and before we headed up to Cambridge, we needed to get one more meal in New York. Since we were at the Ground Zero site, I decided we would head for Katz’s Deli in the Lower East Side. Katz’s is a famous restaurant immortalized in the movie When Harry Met Sally.

The ordering system for the food is confusing to say the least. When you enter, they hand you a ticket. You then find a line to stand in and a deli-slicer prepares your order. He writes what you owe on the ticket. On your way out, you settle at the exit. If you don’t have a ticket, they charge you fifty bucks on the assumption you ate that much and are trying to weasel out of paying.

It wouldn’t be hard to spend that much. The Rueben is fourteen dollars all by itself. Fortunately, it’s big enough for two. My son said his roast beef sandwich was the rarest he has ever eaten. And the potato latkes are divine. Truly great food.

As luck would have it, we snagged a table right next to the one where Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan sat in the movie. How did we know it was that table? Because they have a big sign over it saying so.

I've always thought that scene needed one more line:

ROB REINER'S MOM: I'll have what she's having.
SALLY: I'm having to fake it. Mind your own business.

To get back to our car, we had to cross Delancey Street, which reminded me of the Amy Irving movie. Just for the visual pun of it, I staged a photo of me Crossing Delancey. Get it? I’m sorry, that is just the way my mind works.

My favorite place on the Lower East Side is Guss’ Pickles which is a homemade pickle vendor still on Orchard Street. They pack pickles right out of giant barrels and sell four levels of sour. I go for the full effect. And of course, they have a Crossing Delancey poster in the window.

When in New York, we like visiting sites made famous by movies (someday I’ll tell about the Serendipity trip) and this was a great side trip where we got to experience some authentic New York atmosphere and eat some great deli and pickles.

This post has gotten me so hungry I went and ate the last of the pickles I had brought back from New York. Time to go back for more.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: Where have you been that was used in a movie?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Divine DiVine

While I was at Opryland last week, I noticed that the convention/resort/shopping mall complex hadn’t quite abandoned all it’s theme park routes. For example, there is still one ride left. They have river boats that runs around the biggest atrium that you can ride. We actually did this when we visited a few years ago. It is no Riverwalk, but if you float it, they will ride it. People are suckers for floating tours.

Opryland also has a performing character called DiVine. She is a stiltwalker dressed up like a long strand of ivy. Several times a day she walks around the public areas and acts like a living plant. Since it’s hard to describe, here is the official Opryland description:

Reaching an enormous height, the 'living vine' slowly animates, moving in and out of her surroundings. She gracefully moves to the next location leaving her audience fascinated as once more she melds into her environment.

She will walk up to lampposts and wrap herself around it and then unfurls. After a while, it becomes fun to watch the people watching DiVine. The best reaction is seeing people wander up wondering what the crowd is for and then catching their reaction when the vine starts moving. The illusion is so good guests don't know it is an actor until the vine starts moving.

When she walks from spot to spot a ring of tourists and convention-goers ring her respectively taking pictures with cameras, video recorders and cell phones.

The best part is that DiVine's show is part of the general ambiance and you aren't expected to tip or give money. Gaylord is opening a resort next year in DC. It will be interesting to see what sort of gimmicky performance art they come up with for our nation's capitol. Costumed bald eagles perhaps, since the resort is on a former eagle nesting site.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: Click on the pictures for bigger views and tell me if this is something you could do for a living.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Morning Becomes Celebrity

The latest trend in blogger self-abasement is to post a picture of yourself first thing in the morning, before showers, shaves, or make-up. Harmonica Man and Dave have already shown their stuff. Since I have no personal shame, as anyone who has heard my rendition of “Hot Blooded” knows, I’ve decided to give it a try. I wake up about 5:30 and walk my dog, so the only people that have to face this are other dog walkers:

After the dog walk, I shower and dress before anyone else in the house is awake. Fortunately I clean up nice, so when my wife wakes up she only sees this:

Yeah, right. Okay, this is closer to the truth:

Since I have a fresh recent picture of me, I decided to try this website that determines the celebrity you most closely resemble. Jennine tried it and her celebrities came out pretty hot. Based on my morning face, these are the celebrities it came up with:

A group that includes Gary Busey and David Spade can’t be flattering. Unfortunately, the choices based on the fresh-scrubbed me aren’t any better:

Since I can’t do any better with reality, I decided to try the software on my Mii avatar:

Now we are talking. I have no idea who most of these “celebrities” are, but I like what I see.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: Do you resemble any celebrities?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Grand Ole Time At Opryland

For some reason, I have keep going through Nashville. Two years ago, I accompanied my wife to a conference. Last summer, we stopped briefly while passing through from Memphis to North Carolina. This week, I am the one at the conference and my wife is tagging along.

Only I am not in Nashville, I am in Opryland. Opryland is a huge convention center and resort next to a giant mall. It has about as much similarity to Nashville as Epcot does to Europe. Outside my window is a giant climate-controlled atrium where it looks like a huge antebellum plantation but it isn't.

When I was a kid, we came to the real Opryland once. It was a cheesy theme park where all the areas were named after music genres. Naturally there was Countryland and Bluegrassland and GospelLand and even OldiesRockAndRollLand. There may have been rides, but all I remember is running across music revue after music revue where a bunch of college kids in matching costumes sang a medley of songs having some loose connection to whatever themeland the revue was in.

For some reason, every show ended with "Rocky Top" no matter what type of music they were singing. By the end of the day, I had heard "Rocky Top" about five million times. Still, I had fun and rode rides and listened to lots and lots of music.

The hotel at the park kept expanding until now it takes about three hours to walk from one end of it to another. The park got torn down to put in a huge racetrack shaped Mills Outlet Mall which has nearly exactly all the same stores as the Mills Outlet Mall five minutes from my house.

The relocated Grand Ole Opry sits right between the hotel and the mall and they have shows every Tuesday, Friday, and twice on Saturday. We got in too late to catch the Tuesday show, but it starred Porter Wagoner who must be older than Dolly Parton's wigs. They have a big sign saying that guns are not permitted inside, even if you have a carry permit. That sort of disclaimer is necessary in places like Tennessee, and Virginia for that matter.

You can still hear music at Opryland, but if you don't want to shell out tons of money for a riverboat ride, you have to catch a band at one of the themed bars in the resort. Last night at the Irish bar, we saw a folk trio called Def Leprechuan. Their theme song is "Pour Some Guinness On Me." Then we went to the Jack Daniels Saloon to hear a country rock band called Lonesome Road. Both bands played "Brown Eyed Girl". I guess that is the new version of "Rocky Top".

Monday, April 16, 2007

Sad Hokie

This Hokie is sad, not because he has been forced to wear a Georgia Tech baseball cap by a snarky traveling blogger, but because over 30 fellow Hokies have been senselessly killed.

Here in neighboring Maryland, yesterday's tragedy at Virginia Tech touches nearly everyone I know. We have all made headcounts and phonecalls and e-mails to be sure that our friends and family are still among us.

It becomes a bizarre version of the Kevin Bacon game as people check on those they know. In my circle there are:
  • The friend of a coworker's girlfriend that lived in the dorm where the massacre started.
  • The engineering student that is the older sister of my son's rocket club teammate.
  • The daughter of my wife's former aide that works nights and weekends to afford her kid's out-of-state tuition.
  • The son of my old boss folowing in the footsteps of his alumnus dad.
In a year or two it could be my son, or one of his friends.

We seem to be getting increasingly frequent warnings that complete strangers have too much say over whether we live or die. They strike randomly and unexpectedly. A few years ago I spent an afternoon in a park in Oklahoma City little kids used to play while their parents worked. My uncle spent an entire day covered in concrete dust as he made his way home after fleeing the World Trade Center. My wife has the rules posted in her classroom for what to do if another madman hiding in a car trunk decides schoolkids are fair game.

We are all but a stolen or borrowed gun and a few cents worth of ammunition away from where those Virginia Tech students and teachers and employees are now.

Can we know what drives men to take a gun or a truck or a plane and kill complete strangers?
Never for certain.

Can we make laws or teach classes that will stop these destructive bouts of insanity?
I doubt it.

Can we pray for the victims of these madmen that value their petty grudges or vengeful wishes over the lives of their fellow humans?
We must.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Listen: A Vonnegut Meta-Tribute

When I learned of Kurt Vonnegut’s passing away, I dashed of a quick tribute. I was not alone in that reaction. Several of my blogfriends and either mentioned the death or came to my blog to offer condolences. Madame Courtney Whiny Complainy Pants, Esq. actually beat me to the publish button in addition leaving a nice message to me. Bob Braughler also thought of me in his post. Flasshe with typical impeccable musical taste posted the Al Stewart “Sirens of Titan” song. So many others left comments that they thought of me when they head the news. I thank all of you for your sympathy.

I kept my post short and personal because I knew there would be many more much more extensive retrospectives by others much more talented than me. And I was right. By mid-morning Joel Achenbach had posted an appreciation in the Achenblog. In particular, he mentioned a thesis that would be repeated several other places, but not as cleverly as Joel’s take:

His books were teenager books, really: To fully appreciate them, it probably helped to perceive yourself as an alien being, forced by Fate to survive on a completely demented planet. To be 16 years old, in other words.

While Vonnegut is a frequent topic in the boodle, Joel's post led to an outpouring of memories and discussion in the comments section that stayed amazingly on topic, particularly by boodle standards. The day ended up being a virtual cyberwake for a great writer. Many of the links I have used in this post came from boodle-mining there.

The Washington Post had several other great features. In addition to the formal obituary, they published an online photo gallery and book critic Michael Dirda held a hastily arranged online discussion. Later, Bob Thompson used his interview from when A Man Without A Country came out to put together another insightful essay.

I’m also active in the Wonkette and Gawker commenter communities where I made contributions to each of their surprisingly reverent posts. Although I really have no idea what the point of this follow-up post was.

Vonnegut’s death was covered by all the major most news agencies, but most places used the excellent New York Times obiturary by Dinitia Smith. Being the newspaper of record, the Times also put together a comprehensive retrospective that includes links to NYT reviews of most of his novels as well as reviews written by him. NYT also opened up comments for people to tell what their favorite book was. That thread now has several hundred responses.

NPR’s Morning Edition led each news summary that morning with news and they also put together a full page of links to previous interviews and profiles. Fresh Air used a very poignant interview from 1986 about Vonnegut’s days in the Dresden firebombing. Unfortunately, many of the older NPR clips are only available in RealPlayer, which does not play well with others on my computer.

The Charlie Rose Show also put together a retrospective on their April 12 show. The Vonnegut clips begin about 45 minutes in. The clips came from longer interviews that are available on Google Video. One was from when he was promoting the film version of Mother Night. The Vonnegut interview begins about 14:28 into the show and includes a good clip of Nick Nolte and John Goodman from the movie. The other was for the release of Bagombo Snuff Box. This interview begins 27 minutes in and has some great self-deprecating commentary on how his skills have declined. There is also a roundtable discussion with other writers about the process of screenplay adaptations.

Another long audio interview is available from one he did for The Infinite Mind on Second Life. If you can get used to a cartoon version of Kurt lounging around, it is an interesting recap of his vies on technology and the internet.

Some other papers had their own memorials including the UK Guardian. even had an obituary that didn't get published. As a college student, he wrote for the Cornell Sun, and even though none of the current staff were gleams in their parents’ eye when he wrote there, they work under his watchful eye.

On the web nothing dies and interviews from before his death are still available, like the beginning of this one by Douglas Brinkley in Rolling Stone which has the best version of his mock diatribe against the cigarette companies:

The lying bastards! On the package Brown & Williamson promised to kill me. Instead, their cigarettes didn't work. Now I'm forced to suffer leaders with names like Bush and Dick and, up until recently, 'Colon.'

That quote illustrates the increasingly curmudgeonly voice he had in later years. His more incendiary essays were written for In These Times, a socially and politically activist magazine. They have their own tribute page of the essays he wrote for them.

All of Vonnegut’s books are in print and can be bought inexpensively in your local new or used bookstore or online. This doesn’t keep people from trying to find his words for free. The high school lit class staple “Harrison Bergeron” is available here. Trying to pick among his books is a popular parlor game. Salon had Dave Eggers put together a great guide to the novels that includes icons that indicate which of his major themes are addressed. Vonnegut famously graded his own books. For the Achenblog Boodle, I put together my own grouping of the relative importance of his works. That spurred a debate on whether to start at the top or save the best for last. I recommended Cat's Cradle to newcomers, but don't avoid Slaughterhouse Five, which Time magazine named one of the hundred best modern novels.

I have read nearly every word Vonnegut has written, often more than once and frequently in multiple places. Going through all these tender reminisces can result in bon mot fatigue. In addition to the many allusions to his catch phrases (of which yours truly is a serial offender), several anecdotes keep re-appearing including his quip on the occasion of Isaac Asimov’s death with a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own passing.

And there will always be the silly stuff. He will be dogged with the hoax sunscreen speech forever (a real commencement speech can be found here) as well his feud over Venus On The Half Shell by Phillip Jose Farmer. His cameo in Back To School has a funny punchline, but it also gets to the heart of an interesting meta-comment on his works. Who really does understand an authors words? Every time I read one of his books, I find a new angle or an overlooked irony. You should too.

Blatant Link Mongering™: This is perhaps the linkiest post I have ever written. I intend to update and add to it as I find new items of interest. Feel free to add Vonnegut related links of your own in the comments.

Update (3/17/07): Drink at Work linked to this poignant video montage.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Tale Of The Tape Of The Techs

I spent much of my son's Spring Break doing college visitations. Spring Break is a popular time for high school juniors to do this and both of the colleges we visited were packed with prospective students. From a number of sources you can get all the facts and figures about specific colleges, but it takes some feet on the ground to form misguided opinions based on a quick walk-around with a student guide.

Since this trip was restricted to colleges on the eastern seaboard with “Institute of Technology” in their name, I felt it would be useful to make some comparisons that you won’t find anywhere else.

Big Logo On A Building:

Administrative Building Subject To Frequent Pranks
MIT: The Great Dome has been subject to many legendary hacks such as the infamous 1994 fake police car put on the top.

Ga Tech: Stealing the “T” from the Tech Tower is such an attractive nuisance that upgraded security has taken much of the fun out of this life-endangering staple.

Overlit Neon Corporate Logo Visible From Campus:
MIT: Boston's famous CITGO sign sits on just the other side of the Charles River.

Ga Tech: The Coca Cola World Headquarters, just off campus, reminds you to not even try to purchase a Pepsi product on campus.

Building named after Ford:
MIT: Building E18/19 houses various administrative functions.

photo from
Ga Tech: Ford Environmental Science and Technology Building is a 287,000 square foot academic building that opened in 2003.

Most Phallic Looking Building On Campus:
MIT: The Green Building has the proportions if not the shape. Runner up: The turrets on Ashdown House.

Ga Tech: The campus centerpiece carillon inexplicably called the Kessler Campanile is only truly phallic if you are a bifurcated marsupial. Runner-up: The steam plant smoke stack fits the shape, but is rather mundane.

Building Most Closely Resembling A Female Breast:
MIT: The two domes on the Infinite Corridor make a grand if mismatched pair. Runner up: The Kresge Auditorium has that perfect 1/8 sphere roundness to it.

Ga Tech: The Alexander Memorial Coliseum is more commonly known as “The Tit” even if sportscasters insist on calling it the Thrillerdome.

Cleverest Tee Shirt In the Bookstore:
MIT: Why go with the school’s initials when you can allude to them with scientific formulas.

Ga Tech: Sadly deficient. Lame football slogans are the best they can come up with.

Best Off-Tour Observation:
MIT: There were over three hundred students crammed into Room 10-250 for Calculus 102. MIT likes to brag about their 7:1 student faculty ratio, just don't expect that your freshman year.
Ga Tech: The co-ed group headed up to view a “typical dorm room” in Glen Hall got a clear illustration of what is meant by “traditional community bathrooms” passing the guy brushing his teeth while wearing nothing but a towel.

Best Self-Deprecating Slogan:
MIT: None. I don’t think they know how to do humility at MIT.Ga Tech: "The North Avenue Trade School." In defense of their egos, they also call MIT “The Georgia Tech of The North.”

I hope none of this has been helpful. If you want to see more pictures, you can look at my Flickr sets of either Cambridge or Georgia Tech.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: Feel free to add your random observation about either of these schools or add an entry to any of these categories from a college you are familiar with.