Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Harry Potter and the Audacity of Hope

I have to make a confession, I've started listening to books on tape. Now put down your tar and feather, drop the stones, and please lower your pitch forks and let me explain. There are times/activities that preclude taking a book with you. Riding a bike is difficult if you're trying to read a hardcover, and if you drop a softback (though I don't know why people would buy those) in front of your lawn mower...well at least it's a mulching mower.

With that as my justification, I periodically deny myself the tactile and olfactory (tell me you don't love the smell of new or old books) experience of books in favor of the book on tape. Well the auditory experience is in some ways disappointing in comparison, there are books that I've never been inclined to read that I'll listen to. This has led me to some truths from books I've recently listened to that I want to share with you:
1. Dune was a really bad book. I know it's a classic of Sci Fi and I do appreciate the elements of Islam that Herbert integrated into the book, but by and large it's much harder to listen to than it was read.
2. Tolkien included way more elvish and poetry in the Lord of the Rings than I remember from reading it. I'm guessing I must have skipped those sections. They're much harder to skip when you're listening.
3. Terry Pratchett is one of the funniest pseudo-science fiction writers I've ever read. His Bromeliad was a wonderful kids book and I have yet to listen to a discworld book of his that I haven't liked.

4. You always pronounce proper and place names differently in your head than the way the "authorized" audio book pronounces them.
5. CS Lewis's (yes that's the correct way to make the possessive per Strunk & White) writing style is a lot of fluff with a periodic gem of wisdom that blows you away.
6. and lastly...If Barrack Obama is anything like his book he's got my vote.
Okay so let's focus on the last and then I'll get to Harry Potter. I just finished Obama's Audacity of Hope. First I must make this confession, I've never read/listened to a politicians book before. I think I used a Warren Christopher book in a report on the Balkans in college but that's as close as I've come. So "like a virgin" I listened to Obama. Now the book was like most books of this ilk in that it was short of specifics and long on rhetoric.

Two things stood out though that make it noteworthy. The first is that it lacked the polemics one has come to expect in the modern American polis. Instead of vilification of the conservative Republicans, Obama makes the ghastly admission that they have gotten some things right over the years...I know I was surprised by this too. Indeed he spent the better part of several chapters discussing why the democratic approach to faith, education, and unions was lacking or just plain wrongheaded. I was amazed and found candor and sincerity moving.

It is this sincerity that stood out as the second noteworthy thing in his book. He comes off not as a pompous pontificator pointing proudly to the problems of political partisanship, but a reasoned problem solver willing to work with and listen to others.

Now this might be pure rhetoric for all I know. Certainly his book talked in high terms of all sorts of goals without giving specifics of achieving them, but its nice to have someone talk in high terms again, we haven't had anyone do that since....and this pains me, Reagan. (Stop yelling at the computer Dave, Clinton was hamstrung by the GOP hostility to him from the beginning.)

And onto Harry Potter. I finished the Deathly Hallows four days after it came out. Don't be impressed with that, it's actually very slow for me and that genre of books. I won't really say much here about it since some of you might not want the ending ruined. I can say that I was pleased in the ending and the beginning, she lost the pacing of it a bit in the middle but otherwise it was well written. It was nice to see a book series where the individuals actually changed over time. I can give you a list of a dozen or so other series where the characters never evolve, and the best that can be said of the protagonists is that they become caricatures of themselves. It was also nice to see a series where death was not always a bad thing...but that would give away the ending.

Now here's a video that I hope only took one take. This is from the band Low, their song Breaker.

Monday, July 23, 2007

An apology...kinda

Okay so my last post was a bit...peculiar?, odd?, a work of certifiable genius? Yes we'll go with that last one. I was just feeling a bit inane that day. We all have those moments. I just have this bad habit of letting those moments out. Wife's been working with me on suppressing my need to speak/type every thought that comes to my head but so far it's been a failed effort. For those who might be worried though, be of good cheer, I'm back on my ritilin.

Which brings us to the most exciting trip that UsAndCats have taken in many months. Wife and I have talked for a long time about going hiking in the mountains of northern New York. Okay stop laughing all of you from "real mountainous" areas. Yeah that's right I'm looking at you Alps, and you too Rockies, knock it off. Our mountains may not be as high and jagged and desolate (Rockies only) but they do have some pretty good assents and...the skiing...well...I guess if you want to become a monk they'd be a good place to move to they're so isolated. See.

In any case after several months of talking with my little sis and her boyfriend they finally called our bluff and set a date and time for us to go hiking. Now those of you who know us well know that we like nothing better than talking about things we should do without actually doing them. That's why we're both liberals, it's fun to talk without showing any results.

We were first hesitant to sign up for this arduous voyage, not least because I didn't want my little sister to realize how much of a gelatinous mound of trans-fats her once rock solid (stop laughing) brother had become. Also the only time we could actually meet to do it would be a Sunday morning, which meant that I'd be skipping church to go to the top of the mountain in weather that was supposed to storm...seemed like a bad idea. We did decide to go once we were informed that part of the voyage would include a visit into the belly of the earth, Chimney Mt. was riddled with caves.

Now of course you all realize that this motivation has nothing to do with my innate desire to explore the crevices of earth but more for my undying search to find Morlocks (name the reference without using the internet and you when a prize). Although the idea of following into Dante's Inferno occurred to me as well.

And so it was that we followed our Virgil up the sheer mountain face. In all honesty the assent for this mountain (please stop laughing) wasn't that bad. A mere mile long trail, though there were spots where it was a bit more difficult, by and large it was a good hike. We even passed people on the way up so you know we weren't taking our time, we'll ignore the fact for now that those people were in their 80s.

After a quick snack on the summit, we made our way to the gates of hell, aka Eagle Cave. Our only previous experience spelunking was in a burnt out geyser in Utah. This was a very different experience. Instead of the finger like water eroded chambers of that cave, we found ourselves in chambers that looked like they were placed by slabs of rock not quite sliding into place as the mountain was formed. This should give you a bit of an idea of the scale:

Because the entrance to the cave required us to shimmy on our bellies for several feet before dropping down into the main chamber you can imagine how isolated this cave was. The first chamber consisted of a lot of boulders and slides, it wasn't until we got to its end that we faced our first real challenge, a 10-15' vertical drop.

This was bad enough going down, I think Wife was a bit intimidated by it. Going up it was terrifying...I never did well with the rope ladder in gym class. Fortunately my sister's boyfriend was nice enough to allow all of us to climb on his shoulders to get a bit of a head start up the ladder.

The biggest surprise for me was not the darkness of the caves, but the fog. It was earrie to leave the 70-80 degree outside to enter a cave system in which there were still ice puddles and the entire thing was foggy. That's not a bad picture it's fog.

All in all it was a highly successful trip and surprisingly God didn't strike us down despite numerous opportunities, what with being in a cave and all. I'm very pleased, though I still wish I'd found a Morlock.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Willy Wanka: Worst Illegal Immigrant Employer According to Feds

In a recent raid of his chocolaty compound, INS agents uncovered the dark side of the chocolate industry. Willy Wonka, international playboy and chocolatier extradorinaire, employs no one but illegal immigrants.

It's true, INS officials learned that the Ooompa Loompa's are not from some backwoods part of West Virginia as previously thought, but that they'd been stolen from all over oompaloompalandistan. Hundreds of undocumented Loompas, or "freaky little people" as they prefer to be called, were found living in cages on the Wonka compound. Many were led away in INS ambulances, as it was uncovered that Mr. Wonka, aka the oompinator, was also running an illegal loompa baiting and oompa fighting ring. Mr. Wonka has been charged with several thousand counts of loompa smuggling, oompa fighting, tax evasion, and oompa porn distribution (that's too disturbing to recount in this expose).

In an even more shocking discovery, UsandCats has uncovered that the federal indictment is merely the tip of the gingerbread house. We can confidently reveal that government labs have just verified that the secret ingredient in Wonka's highly popular product is nothing else but old oompa loompa parts. Evidently Wonka would dispose of "ineffecient" loompas by rendering them down for their body fat which had high levels of sugar. This gave his gobstoppers that gobsmacular kick we all know. More troubling is that artificial coloring giving his chocolate bars wasn't merely brown coloring if you know what we mean. Wonka had no comment when asked for an interview, but rest assured we'll stick to this story like Wonka's delicious everlasting gum (FYI, made of Ooompa snot).

Sorry about that I was really bored. Here's a funny video (warning adult content):

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Greatest Book Ever

And now to review the greatest book of all time:

The French translation title is slightly better. It is literally "About the Little Mole Who Wanted to Know Who Did it on his Head".

No this is not a story about a little mole who wanted to know if the government had branded him, or to find out if someone had put a chip in his brain. This is a story about a little mole with a problem that none of us wish to experience...well don't make me say it.

The plot of the book is straight forward. The unsavory event occurred to the unsuspecting mole while he was leaving the tunnels for some fresh air. Naturally traumatized he went in search of the culprit who dared to so...shall we say mark him?

The leads led the mole far and wide in an attempt to follow the clues to apprehend the suspect who so despoiled him. Yet he finds himself constantly waylaid by false hopes and false leads. No one seems to want or be able to help him. Finally the sad little mole is forced to turn to the most vile elements of the underbelly of society. Yet herein he finds the clues that lead to his redemption and revenge.

I believe there's a lesson in this. Too often we find ourselves looking toward those who put on an outward facade of knowledge but inwardly lack the understanding we need to overcome our difficulties. Only when we turn to those with real life experience can we discover how it came to be that we like our little mole...
got pooped on our head.

Now don't think that I'm going to keep posting at my current rate. I might take a couple months off who knows. To bide you over check out this video. It's my current favorite song, with a good Romeo and Juliet theme going on.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Everybody's Writing but Is Anybody Listening


Is there anybody listening?
Is there anyone that sees what's going on?
Read between the lines,
criticize the words they're selling.
Think for yourself and feel the walls
become sand beneath your feet

Or at least that's what Queensryche wrote in their 1990 album Empire. (Yes I did just cite Queensryche, and yes I was a hair band rocker in my early teens. Stop making fun. You'll notice I'm not giving you a link to their site though, that's how ashamed of myself I am.) With everyone and their mother, literally, blogging I can't help but wonder who's out there reading. I know that there are a core 10-20 of you friends and family that read this site on a regular basis, and I'm ecstatic on those posts that elicit double digit comments (even if I have to up the tally by commenting on your comments). Still, I can't help but wonder if anything I have to say is really worth your time.

That doesn't mean that I'm going to stop blogging. In fact I think blogging is more cathartic in a lot of ways than therapy would be. But I wonder what ultimate end these posts serve. Am I a vehicle to help you de-stress after/during work? Do I really communicate any uplifting message? Am I using my bully pulpit to actively proselyte for my faith or political party? Or am I just another cog in the machine that moves us toward a Cardian future (after the science fiction author Orson Scott Card)?

Speaking of Card, in his opus Ender's Game, the Earth is threatened with alien destruction, yadayadayada...if you've read a sci fi novel or seen any of the Alien movies you get the idea. One of the more interesting subplots of his sci fi world is that on Earth, people have taken to using the net as a true public forum. Instead of a space consisting entirely of geeks and porno, the Web in Card's future is dominated by debates where citizens argue and debate about the state of the earth. So much so that by the end of the novel citizens have effectively used the Net to bring peace and global domination.

Well certainly there is some of this style debate going on in the digital universe, but for the most part the Web has become a place where cordiality and debate are mutually exclusive. Political junkies go to those sites that reinforce their identity. Religious apologists stay within their community. Religious antagonists feed on one another's vitriolic rants on their boards. A broader community is absent because the Web does not demand it; it demands instead that you set aside decorum and rant, rave, and disparage. This is our great future where community is defined by an insular self-congratulating group, and your neighbors are only those individuals that agree with you.

How frightening. So what is the role of UsAndCats? Is anyone listening to our mindless posts? All I can say is that in seven years of marriage one of our greatest strength as a couple has been our common sense of humor. It is the joy of life, humor, and self-disparaging wit that we hope to bring to you for a couple minutes every couple weeks. We just hope you join the fight against the cynicism and rage of the day and joy in by laughing at our social betters. That is after all why America was founded; the Brits obviously have no sense of humor otherwise their version of the Office wouldn't be so boring.

Speaking of Brits, we'd like to welcome our dear friend Coops to our blogging family. Welcome and don't make us de-link you.

Also I found this report after I finished the above rant and thought it was timely. Enjoy.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Midlife Crisis

There is a universal truth that I think we all can recognize. Eventually you'll get to a point in your life where you'll look in the mirror and no longer see yourself but see your father/mother. Now this might take longer for some than others, but it will happen. We call this ouch-there-goes-my-hip-ification, or geriatrification for those who like to be more scientific. This is the process of getting old.

For me this process is all to real. The symptoms were subtle at first. It started with the mingling of my memories with things I saw on Justice League cartoons I watched as a kid (for the record superman is a wimp, batman could kick his arse any day). This of course wasn't a horribly telling symptom as most men in their 20s and 30s have this problem, having spent much of their pre-teen years lusting after wonderwoman and imagining they were a radioactively enhanced super hero. Much better than being a viagra enhanced old man.

Following these delusions of grandeur I began experiencing even more frightening symptoms. They're actual part of a spectrum of disease covered by the all encompassing name "back-in-my-day" disease. This disease spectrum starts with the inability to listen to popular music. At first this is passed off as radio stations changing formats, and so elicits very little concern from one's loved ones. In time the stations that reliable played the music you liked as a kid become unbearable to listen to. Your radio presets change to include a mix of talk radio and "classic rock" stations. In its final stages, the patient wholly abandons music and spends much of his/her commute yelling at the partisan hacks on the radio.

Even more frightening is that this shift to talk radio often is accompanied by a political shift. For the vast majority of people they enter the ranks of the zombie drones of conservative demagogues. For others they take their house off the electric grid, increase their composting, and don't wear anything not made of hemp. Personally I'm thinking of taking it to another extreme by joining a commune somewhere in Appalachia.

The second and more troubling part of this disease is the "how can her parents let her dress like that" syndrome. This is where men no longer see women and admire their natural beauty but suddenly and vocally wonder how they can go out in public with an outfit barely suitable for a burlesque house. This syndrome is associated with a phenomenon wherein the patient dismisses most mall based retailers as shops that sell "trashy kid clothes". In its final stages one only shops at places like Eddie Bauer, Macy's, or S&K. This is also known as "selling out to the man-itis", I haven't found a cure for it yet but I'll keep you posted as soon as the latest Men's Warehouse sale is over.

Lastly is the ever crippling technophobia. Here our aging patient suddenly fears anything not produced before 1979. Nostalgia for 8-tracks, vinyl, and the telegraph increases dramatically with this syndrome. Eventually the patient throws out all their dvds and insists that all their family and friends switch to the new high quality beta max system. It's around this time that the family should just put the patient down. Fortunately I have experienced none of these symptoms, unless of course you think my complete apathy about the iPhone is a symptom.

Now that you're educated in the symptoms of geriatrification you too can look at yourself in the mirror and see your parents. It's not all bad after all you do get to...hang on there's some kids on my lawn I've got to go yell at them about their clothes.....

Monday, July 02, 2007

Things you shouldn't say to your Wife/Girlfriend

Now I'm not a smart man. No actually let me take that back, I am smart, I'm just not very wise. I tend to speak without thinking. This leads to catastrophic results and have caused me to apologize to people more times than I can remember. Because we're now moving toward our 8th anniversary, my long suffering wife has had to deal with more of these quotable idiotism than anyone else. In no particular order I give you my top five least favorite lines from our romantic life together.

1. Honey sometimes you do stupid things,

2. (Upon purchasing new shoes) Wow, you're almost as hip as your mom now,

3. I like big things honey, that's why I like your butt,

4. (Night of homecoming after dating about three week)
Me:...I Love You.
Me:...Wait, where'd that come from? I didn't mean that!
Me: Sorry about that.

5. (Within the first two months of marriage, upon turning out the lights to go to bed together one night)
Me: Hey honey you hear about that Mormon guy in Arizona that knifed his wife to death and used the defense that he was sleep walking in the trial? Well anyway good night.
Wife: ......................................mommy.

Here's another music video from a French musician, though this time the songs in English at least.