"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Snowy Start to 2013 Hiking

As in 2012, I have made my first visit of the year to Waterloo Recreation Area in March. Unlike last year, this time there was still snow on the ground. Compare the below picture of the Old Field Trail with one taken last March.

In truth, the hiking last Saturday was wonderful. I did four of the trails originating from the Eddy Discovery Center and topped it off spying two sandhill cranes on the shore of Mill Lake. Beautiful birds! They were too far away for my camera. I watched them for a couple of minutes through this viewer on the observation deck.

As the season progresses, I will populate an album on my Google+ account:
Waterloo Recreation Area 2013 There are a few images already there. And feel free to browse my other public albums.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Reaching Fulfillment 'Above All Things'

Above All ThingsAbove All Things by Tanis Rideout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You don't need to be a mountain climber to get hooked on the subject, especially when it comes to Mount Everest. Three years ago I read Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and was hooked. Since then I have read seven more books on Everest, followed online coverage each season, and watched a handful of films. However, Above All Things is the first dedicated piece of Everest fiction I have read. Though I was intrigued by author Tanis Rideout's NPR interview plugging the book, it left me suspicious. Her qualifications, historical knowledge and mountaineering experience, seemed limited.

Nevertheless, I snatched up my public library's copy and gave it a chance. After all, I find the legend of ill-fated George Mallory as engrossing as any fan of Everest literature does. The chance to experience his story as historical fiction, and the story of his wife Ruth, was irresistable. From page one, I was encouraged by Ms. Rideout's narrative style. The delivery is delightfully straightforward and focused.

The novel's major drawback, initially at least, is the choice to limit Ruth Mallory's plotline to a single day. While it affords readers great insight into the plight of loved ones waiting for news, it means much of the story is excruciatingly stationary. Rideout compensates for this with increasing effectiveness as the novel progresses and the characters develop. In particular, she includes a pivotal supporting character named Will. His turbulent bond with George, revealed in flashback, and the exquisite affection he exhibits for Ruth in the present, provide tension and flow to scenes that would otherwise be nothing but relentless waiting.

After a slow start, I read the latter two-thirds of Above All Things in a single day. This is comparable to my experience with other Everest books. Even readers get summit fever. As Rideout and her characters press into situations undocumented by history, she keeps the novel on task by exploring post-war national angst, as well as the competing pulls of familial commitments and personal quests. By her own admission, Rideout takes some significant liberties with the facts but does so for the sake of effective storytelling. Her depiction of the final summit bid is mesmerizing. At any time, this book is on the verge of plummeting into schmaltzy romance. Yet, through good writing, empathetic characters, and with the help of an irresistible legend, Rideout offers up a novel well worth reading.

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Martian Red on a Day of Green

Today is of course St. Patrick's Day. For me it began just before dawn as I, half-asleep and sporting bed hair, stumbled out onto the snow-covered front lawn. After a few minutes of pacing to stay warm and wondering if I'd missed it, I noticed a bright point of light rise over my roof on a northeasterly trajectory: the International Space Station. The boy in me took over and gave the ISS an enthusiastic wave. Do you know how to
get a free heads-up when the ISS is going to pass over your neighborhood?

Now, I am not Irish. Nevertheless I sincerely thank them for this wonderfully inclusive day of celebration. I will be scoring my corned beef and cabbage a bit later. But right now it's time to share an image you should not miss. Check out Mount Sharp on the planet Mars. Do not settle for the below preview image. Visit NASA's landing page and open the full-size JPEG version (white-balanced and raw-color versions available). Then zoom in and start scrolling.

Mount Sharp aka Aeolis Mons on Mars, Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS 

Lest we forget, the Curiosity Rover and its cameras are not alone. Below is a wonderful view taken from space. Thanks to the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, we have been able to observe changes occurring on the planet's surface. According to planetary scientist Colin Dundas, the new gully deposits in the below image are likely caused by none other
than frost!

Gullies in Mars's Gasa Crater, Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Friday, March 8, 2013

Elegy for a Blockbuster Video Store

Image of a Blockbuster Video Store Closing in Michigan
Local Blockbuster Closes - Kind of a Bummer

Mildly depressing. That sense that something is going away and only its departure has made me realize how much I valued it. I did a post like this a while back for Borders Bookstore. Here I am doing another. But this one is different. Perhaps that is why it is only mildly depressing.

I never really loved Blockbuster. My preferred chain was Hollywood Video. There was a big one a block over from my college dormitory. I logged many hours in there. Sometimes I browsed longer than the running time of the movie I ended up renting. Video stores are one of the few places I've ever loved shopping in.

It was thanks to the Hollywood Video in Ogden, Utah that I made it all the way through the American Film Institute's '100 Years...100 Movies' list. Their best list. Not like the increasingly contrived ones that have followed it. I've seen every film on that list. And most of them were rented from a single Hollywood Video store. No Netflix required. Couldn't dream of doing a project like that today relying on a brick and mortar video store.

The above picture presents a single store closing, not the entire chain. Another reason I'm only mildly depressed. Besides, it was a small Blockbuster for a small town. I never cherished it, like I've never cherished convenience stores or quick lube oil change shops or the book section of any superstore or discount movie theaters or any business enterprise playing to the least common denominator in the marketing guise of bang for buck. Efficiency be worshipped and quality be damned? I think not. This particular Blockbuster was basically a walk-in closet filled with new releases and previously viewed videos. There wasn't anything celebratory about the place, even back when they were making money. So I'm only mildly depressed.

But it is depressing. As I sit here typing on my charming iPad (she's a charming girl like all Apple products), as my life devolves into a procession of Wi-Fi hotspot visits, I consider the possibility that the last movie I will have ever rented from a good old-fashioned video store was A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. ... Like I said, mildly depressing.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Dare to Witness 'The Body' of Boyhood

Different SeasonsDifferent Seasons by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review of The Body (as included in the compilation 
Different Seasons)

I cannot remember ever attempting anything as ambitious as the pilgrimage to a corpse taken by the four boys in Stephen King's novella The Body. I can match King's ensemble in some ways. As a boy I had buddies. We rough-housed. We tried cigarettes. We obsessed over girls. Dirty jokes were told. Alcohol was sampled. Foolishness occurred. But we never took a 30+ mile hike into the forest to see a dead body. Nevertheless, I identify with these boys and how they go about being boys.

The thematic essence of King's story is innocence confronting mortality through dares. The distinction for me is critical. This is not a story about mortality confronting innocence. These boys chase the inevitability of death to the edge of their known world. They seek Death out, searching for it until they arrive at the sight of a pale white hand sticking out of the forest undergrowth. Their journey is a series of boss dares as the narrator calls them at one point.

What I love most about King's portrayal of these rash boys is how full of feelings they are. I remember that about my youth. Me and my buddies were brim full of feelings, feelings that raced ahead of our minds' ability to express them. Yet there were times, especially when the number of boys hanging out dropped to two or three, when we could share those feelings with each other. Whether in scout tents after dark, or at our favorite hangouts, we found moments to confide, to compare notes, but also to argue and to dare each other. Looking back, if any of my buddies in public school had suggested we sneak off into the woods in search of a corpse, I would have wanted to go. Hell, I think I'd do it tomorrow.

King, drawing on his own childhood, captures the essence of that insatiable need felt so acutely by young men--the need to reckon with mortality. As a work of realism, The Body proves highly accessible and more compelling in its depiction of humanity than King's supernatural fare. This is straightforward storytelling, offering a wonderful mix of charm and heartbreak. Charm comes as the boys explore their awkward natures and fledgling intellects. Heartbreak arrives as they face instances of shame, defeat, and irreparable disconnect with loved ones, especially parents.

Earlier I asserted that this novella is about boys confronting mortality via dares. The case could be made, and is made by the excellent film adaptation, that The Body is really about standing by one's friends. Certainly that is a key dynamic at work in the story's climax. But consider this. Boys, even at their best, are volcanic souls fraught with unpredictability and risk. It isn't easy to stand by one, even if you are one. What could be a bigger dare than standing by a troubled boy during the relentless series of crises that constitute growing up? That is the furnace where true friendship is forged. If you are looking for a great tale that reveals the remarkable and tumultuous nature of youth, a tale equal parts endearing and haunting, you need look no further than The Body.

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