Thursday, August 31, 2006

Very Scary

I went to the movies with my friend Drew tonight, and we had a great time as always -- I really enjoy his company. And we saw a really creepy movie: The Descent. I didn't realize it was still playing, but it's downtown at the Hollywood Bar and Filmworks. I'm glad I caught it on the big screen, because it's such a scary movie. Scary movies tend to affect me a lot while I'm watching them. I don't get nightmares, but while I'm watching them I do my best to really get into them. That's the whole point of a scary movie: to let yourself embrace the creepy. If you mentally distance yourself from the action to the point where it doesn't scare you, you're missing the point, just like you'd be missing the point to mentally distance yourself from a good comedy to the point where you don't laugh (if the movie's not scary/funny, that's a different story). You owe yourself the experience of letting yourself get scared by a scary movie. If I were watching this one at home alone, I might not have made it to the halfway point without turning it off; it's that scary. And it manages to do it without being formulaic or cliched in any way; the closest it comes is in a few cheap shots early in the film, where the film slips in a few cat-jumping-out moments to make you (and the characters) jump.

There isn't a spoiler-free way to tell you what I really liked about the movie, but if you're into a very good, intensely creepy movie I haven't seen a better one in a long time. I think it even surpasses Event Horizon for raw creep factor; it's on a par with Alien. The cast is great, too, as is the cinematography. The music is perfect, too; you can tell because you never notice the music, but it really does what it's supposed to.

You'll notice that I didn't include my usual link to the movie's trailer; that's on purpose. If you haven't seen the trailer, don't; it contains a few big spoilers. I didn't see the trailer first, and I'm glad I didn't. I got to be surprised by a few things that were, well, surprising.

And, now I have to drop a few spoilers. If you haven't seen the movie, skip this and come back to it once you've seen the film. I mean it -- skip this, and you'll enjoy the movie a lot more.

Here goes the spoiler observation: this is the only horror movie I've ever seen that actually gets less creepy once the monsters show up. The cave itself is probably more menacing in the first half of the movie than the eventual creepy monsters are in the last half. The cave-in and some surrounding moments were as tense as anything I've seen on film; it's really atmospheric and threatening. Even after the monsters show up, one of the scariest moments is all about the cave. And, after the women are separated, they all use different lighting (glow sticks, flares, a torch, head lamps, and a view through the lens of an infrared camera) so you can tell who's who without thinking about it. That's a nice touch. Another winning moment: when the girls are yelling for help and you're seeing the world thru Sam's IR camera, and the camera view bounces over to show the first shot of a monster standing behind Rebecca. I think Drew and I both levitated out of our seats!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Hugo awards, and songs with the same names

The winners of sci fi's highest honor, the Hugo Awards, were announced at LACon this past weekend, and I still haven't finished reading all the nominees. Robert Charles Wilson won the best novel prize for Spin, and I'm looking forward to reading it. And my personal fave John Scalzi won the Campbell Award for Old Man's War -- go John! I'm calling OMW and its sequel, The Ghost Brigades, the two best books I've read all year. So if you're reading the award winners, they're a great place to start. I'll let you know what I think of Spin when I finish it; I've got it on hold at the library.

Not having read it, though, I'm going to say in advance that I'll be fully shocked if I enjoy it more than Old Man's War.

On a semi-related note, I tried to find Spin at the library, and their catalog contains six books titled "Spin". Namespace has long been a problem in fiction; it's hard to find a book title that's completely original, it's hard to find a character name that's new, it's hard to find a theme that hasn't been touched on. Writers deal with this by not caring, and the system has worked pretty well.

It's worse in music, though. I was digging through my mp3 collection yesterday and found a pile of different songs with the same title. It's harder to sort them out than it sounds, too, because of cover songs with matching titles confuse things. A very brief list of highlights: "A Man and a Woman", by Patricia Barber or U2; "Stay", from Alison Krauss or Lisa Loeb; "What It Is", by Nina Hagen or Mark Knopfler; "Water", by Breaking Benjamin or Holly McNarland; "A Thousand Miles", by Vanessa Carlton or Robert Mirabal; "Set It Off", by Audioslave or P.O.D.; "Whatever", by Godsmack or Imogen Heap; "Tension", by the Blue Man Group or Orbital; and "Surrender", by U2 or the Chemical Brothers. This is just a random sampling; the complete list is about five times this long....

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

experimenting on the cats

Laura's out of town, so while she's gone I experiment on our cats. No test tubes or needles; I mess with their little kitty minds instead, because it's more fun. This week's experiment: Bad Loud Music. And it's going pretty well so far.

A little background, first. My taste in music is pretty eclectic and crosses all genres, but Laura's is somewhat narrower -- she doesn't like Bad Loud Music, or rap, or country, or a few other genres that I'm okay with. And that's fine; I'm not a huge fan of the singers-and-standards genre which is her musical mainstay, either. Marriage generally functions such that both parties have veto power, which means that if someone wants something and the other party doesn't, the doesn't carries the vote. So Laura chooses our music when she's home, because I can tolerate her music a lot better than she can tolerate the more extreme ends of my taste*. With her away for the week, the XM radio is mine, all mine, bwa ha ha, so it spends a lot of time tuned to the Liquid Metal station.

So, the experiment. I've been noticing for a while that when I turned on the radio, the cats would be more or less restless depending on the music. The cats can lay around and sleep to most classical music or soft vocal jazz (say, Patricia Barber), and they're more active when we play upbeat vocal jazz (say, Sinatra) or indie rock. This week I noticed that the cats would actually leave the room when I had Bad Loud Music on -- but only for certain songs. They'll hang out in the living room like normal, but when the song changes they'll occasionally take off for another part of the house. And they do it right after the new song comes on. So I'm paying attention and seeing which bands make the cats flee and hide under the bed. So far, the cats really dislike Sepultura, The Seventh Gate, Machine Head, Anthrax, and Mastodon. And they're completely fine with Cradle of Filth, Bludgeon, Hatebreed, and Opeth. When a song by My Dying Bride came on, Koko actually came back in the room and lay down in front of one of the speakers. I'm also seeing if, after the cats flee a bad song, if I can change stations and lure them back into the room with some classical music or laid-back pop. I've also noticed that all the cats like bluegrass and folk music.

Also, Chaka is our oldest cat. She's the cat Laura had before we met, and we didn't start acquiring more cats until around the time we got married. Chaka's a lot like Laura in a lot of ways (Koko is the most like me). And Chaka doesn't like any bad loud music; when I switch the XM to Liquid Metal, she wants to go outside. She'd rather deal with the scrappy outdoor cats than listen to Sevendust.

And this isn't a new observation, but cats really like tuna. I brought a tuna sub home from Subway, and three cats were sitting in front of me on the table trying to get a bite of it. They're normally good about not trying to eat food while I'm eating it, but Koko tried to snatch the sandwich out of my hands while I was taking a bite. It took me a minute to connect that I was eating tuna; I spent a few moments wondering why the cats were so interested in my lunch.

* Her music is more tolerable in general than mine; Frank Sinatra blends into the background pretty easily, but it's hard to ignore Lamb of God and Deicide.

Movies. Meh.

I've got the day off today, and I was planning on going out to see a movie. But there's absolutely nothing showing that I'm vaguely interested in seeing. I tend to like movies, so I was a little shocked that there were no offerings on screen that appealed to me. So I checked out the upcomings on Apple's trailers site. I'm looking forward to a few things in the near future; here are the highlights.

  • Casino Royale , a new James Bond movie. The book marked James Bond's first appearance, and they're keeping that for the movie. I'm interested to see this, if for no other reason than I think it'll be interesting to see how James Bond started. I read the book, but I was probably twelve years old so I don't remember much of it. Given what generally happens with movies, that's probably for the best; I think it was John LeCarre, who wrote The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, who said, "seeing your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes."
  • The Protector , a new Tony Jaa action movie. Jaa's first movie, Ong Bak , was everything a bad action movie should be: it had terrible dialogue, a thin plot, bad characterization, and excellent, exciting fight scenes. Jaa (real name Panom Yeerum) does all of his own stunts, and the movie contains no CGI effects, no wirework, and all live stunts. The closest they came to cheating was wearing knee pads under their pants; when you see the guy back-flipping over the car, they actually have a guy back-flipping over a car.
  • Ghost Rider , a comic-book movie starring Nicholas Cage. I'm not expecting a great movie, but I suspect it'll be pretty entertaining. Watch the preview; it's almost worth seeing the movie just for the motorcycle jump shown at the beginning of the trailer. Plus, Nick Cage is always highly watchable, even in bad movies. For the same reason I might also see The Wicker Man , which looks bad but creepy.
  • And, a pair of horror movies: The Grudge 2 , the sequel to possibly the creepiest movie in recent memory, and The Reaping . The Reaping is a biblical-plague supernatural horror flick, and it looks highly creepy from the trailer. And, the plague o' locusts looks cool.

I am so NOT watching Saw III. I like horror movies; The Grudge and Silent Hill were among my recent favorites. But I saw the first Saw, and it's not a horror movie. It belongs to a different genre -- almost a snuff movie, done through high-quality effects instead of actually killing people on screen. The effect is the same as a snuff film; the "thrill" comes from seeing people tortured to death in messy, inventive ways. Movies like Saw, House of 1000 Corpses, and Hostel get their creeps from a different place than traditional horror movies. They're not supernatural, they don't have inhuman monsters, they're not vampire/zombie/ghost creepy. They're creepy because you watch a guy on screen strap someone to a chair and gouge their eyes out with a rusty fork. And you know there are people who would gladly do that, given a chance. It's no more entertaining to watch than footage from Darfur. If I had to name the genre, I'd call it Grisly Sadism Movies. And it doesn't appeal to me at all.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

long day, late night

Yesterday was the Feast of Lanterns in Spades Park, just down the street from us. Laura and I agreed (on short notice) to do some lighting for the Feast. We did some of the setup work Friday, and I did the actual day-of stuff. I started setting fixtures as soon as I dropped Laura off at the airport at 7, left for a long lunch around 2pm, and came back around 5. I set a few lights to color the artists' tents, but mostly I lit the stage. The performances were great, too; the band list included Acoustic Catfish, Blaq Lily, and Jennie DeVoe, and they're all fun to watch.

My only real trauma (other than the extremely long day) was the torrential rain that started in the middle of Jenne DeVoe's set. We had to rush to get all the gear out of the water, and I got soaked to the skin coiling cables and pulling fixtures. We waited the rain out to start striking gear, so it was around midnight when we started loading stuff up. I had a dimmer rack hard-wired to the generator, so I had to wait until the generator was powered down to deal with any of the power; I have no problems wiring with live power, but I don't do it while standing in three inches of water. That crosses the line from confident to crazy. I ended up getting home around 1am, at which point I had to carry everything into the house to let it dry. A long, long day, and it ended with stress and lots of heavy lifting. So I slept waaay in this morning, and I've mostly spent the day loafing so far. Yay, loafing!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Laura's out of town. And, weird liquor laws.

Laura's out of town until next Friday. She's in Salt Lake City doing lighting for the American Legion National Convention. She always enjoys working with them, and she enjoys getting out of Indy a bit, too. I'm working a lot while she's gone, but I'll probably go see a non-Laura movie some night while she's out. That's me, party guy.

Utah's a pretty quirky state, as evidenced by their really surreal liquor laws. Wine stores in Utah are owned by the state and are required by law to mark up their wine by at least 67% above cost. I'm amused by the fact that they aren't allowed to sell corkscrews; they can't do anything that might "encourage consumption". Selling the wine is fine, though. I think they pretend that people don't actually drink it, that people are keeping that Boone's Farm in a cellar for investment purposes. They have a system wherein you have taverns -- which only serve wine and not-very-alcoholic beers -- that are open to the public, and actual bars (which they call "private clubs") that have a monthly cover charge (which they call a "membership fee"). And most restaurants can serve hard liquor, but only if you're also ordering food. My favorite part of the law, though, is metered dispensing. All hard liquor is dispensed via a metered system that dispenses at most one ounce of "primary liquor" per drink, with other "flavoring alcohols" added according to a set recipe, with the total "spiritous liquor" volume not to exceed 2.75 ounces per beverage. A Utah rum and coke contains exactly 1 ounce of rum. I'm thinking the Utah version of a Long Island Iced Tea would fit in a Dixie cup.

I thought about this system for a while. My first take was that it's pretty traditional moralizing -- people in Utah can pretend they're enforcing a teetotaling moral code, without actually hurting their convention and tourism businesses or making it more difficult for anyone to drink. Moralizing is always a powerful motive, but this is politics. So the actual question, as is always the case in politics, is "who makes money on this?" The biggest beneficiary is the state. I found the number that Utah makes $21 mil a year from the liquor tax. I also found a number that says Utah schools receive over $70 mil in from the state each year from alcohol sales. It only took me a second to figure out how the second number could be bigger than the first: Utah also makes the retail markup on all alcohol sold in the state, and it's a high markup. They concentrate on "premium brands", which are expensive to start with, and they charge a lot for them. Liquor in Utah apparently costs about 65% more than it does in Wyoming, which is why it's pretty common practice for drinkers in Salt Lake City to drive an hour to one of the liquor stores just across the border.

The other money makers on Utah's alcohol laws are the people who sell alcohol in clubs and restaurants. I suspect they complained loudly about the metering system at first, but metering also means your bartenders can't give away your alcohol by being generous to their regulars. Not only that, people have to buy more drinks to get the same amount of alcohol they would elsewhere, so you sell more. It's a common Utah practice to order a drink with a "sidecar", a shot which you pour into your drink to bring its alcohol content up to out-of-state standards. So your five-dollar rum and coke actually costs you ten dollars -- five for the drink and five for the sidecar. You also get to charge a monthly "membership fee" to all of your patrons. Heh.

I also noticed an oddity concerning the tax collected on alcohol sales. When a club sells you a rum and coke they pay a restaurant tax on the sale, but don't charge sales tax on the alcohol portion of the bill; they've already paid the state sales tax when they bought the bottle. But the restaurant does collect alcohol tax on the setup part of the bill. So, say your five-dollar rum and coke consists of alcohol they paid two dollars for, plus three dollars in "setup costs". They subtract the amount they paid in alcohol tax already ($.23 on $2 worth of alcohol), then calculate the restaurant tax based on the remainder. This is a pretty complicated calculation for a cheap cash register to perform; I wonder if they have some sort of practical short cut.

And, my inner English major was amused by the continuous use of the phrase, "spirituous liquors" in Utah's liquor laws. The phrase literally means any distilled (as opposed to fermented) alcohol product. I'm assuming they specify "spirituous" so the law doesn't apply to the only other use of the word "liquor" I'm aware of: the caustic bath in which wood pulp is cooked prior to making kraft paper. These are lawyers, after all -- if it's not written down in excruciating detail, it doesn't really exist. I also wonder, since Utah goes out of its way to specify that its laws only apply to spirituous (distilled) liquor, if they're purposely excluding freezing-process alcohols. People have been making applejack for centuries by fermenting cider, then pouring it into metal containers (I understand milk cans work well) outdoors during sub-freezing weather. You swirl the liquid in the container, water freezes to the cold metal, and you pour out the more concentrated hard cider. Repeat often enough and you end up with applejack, which starts at 100 proof. And you can probably legally sell it on street corners without a license in Utah, unless they closed that loophole in some other piece of legislation.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Google Problem - gasp!

I just discovered my first gripe with Google. Blogger.com is now a Google property. Normally, this is a good thing; smaller companies tend to improve with Google's ownership. But now I can't simultaneously have a gmail window and a blogger window open at the same time. I just lost a chunk of text I wrote; I started a blog entry here, opened gmail in another window, and discovered when I went to publish the post that I was no longer logged in to blogger. I think the problem is that my blogger and gmail usernames are only different by a punctuation mark. This is a good reason to keep writing my posts in Writely (yet another Google property); it saves often, so I don't actually lose anything if it doesn't post. And my Google and Writely usernames are different enough that it doesn't confuse them.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Career women more likely to divorce?

I just read an article in Forbes magazine, the central point of which is that professional women (defined as women with college degrees, working full time and earning more than $30k a year) are more likely to get divorced, more likely to cheat on their husbands, and more likely to be unhappy than homemakers. The article apparently irritated a few people, so they took it down within hours. A slightly sanitized version is now up again, side by side with a rebuttal by another Forbes writer. Thankfully, Google cached the original here; read it while it lasts.

I didn't agree with the tone of the article. The author implies that careers cause marital problems; he's confusing correlation with causation, and he's neglecting a blue million sociological factors. Divorced homemakers are screwed a dozen ways (financially, socially, and with family issues), so it's no shock they're reluctant to do it. The fact is, working women can afford to leave their jerk/abusive/cheating husbands, so they do more often. The statistic I'd like to see: is there a corresponding change in which person files for divorce?

Speaking of statistics I'd like to see, they aren't giving us any actual numbers from the studies they cite. Are we talking 50% or 3% more likely to divorce? One number would be shocking, one would induce apathy. And how much happier are homemakers (working under the questionable assumption that happiness is a scalar quantity)?

The thing I find oddest in the original article is the correlation with happiness: career women are less happy. Though, the more I think about it, it's less surprising; no matter what we do, we're to some extent stuck with the prejudices of our childhood. Career women today, like it or not, were raised with Barbie dolls and Easy-Bake Ovens. So there has to be a little nagging gripe in the back of the mind, the call of the kitchen and the crib (I love alliteration). Guys feel a version of this, too, though over different issues. I don't think guys are born competitive and incapable of admitting weakness, any more than I think women are born homemakers. But I think everyone of our generation and older was socialized that way, at least to some extent. Defying those early-life lessons has to be stressful on some level, both for career women and for stay-at-home dads (and for anyone else who defies the cultural norms they learned as a child). I think too many women are pretty unaware of what goes on in their subconscious -- everyone is, as a rule (that's why it's called the subconscious); this is just a specific case. I think at least a reasonable analog to career women, in terms of defying the norms pressed on them as children, is gay men. There's been scads of research done about the little internal traumas gay men experience as a result of defying expectations they didn't choose. For some reason, though, researching the same issues for career women has been taboo. I think it's too easy to be labeled as sexist for even asking the question*.

The "rebuttal" isn't really relevant to the discussion, either. Layered amidst the rampant hyperbole ("marrying a 'career girl' seems to lead to a fate worse than tangling with a hungry cougar") is advice to guys about how to keep their career girls interested, and some general advice about making a marriage work. Her central point reads like, "I'm a career woman and I make my marriage work; I don't see the problem." It sounds a lot like a smoker saying, "I smoke, and I don't have lung cancer; therefore, I don't think smoking increases cancer risk." And while it's good advice for keeping your marriage healthy, "be interesting to your spouse" is neither a novel insight or a rebuttal of the original article's claims.

And here's my blatantly obvious observation: of course women are less happy working! I'm less happy working! :-)

* For an interesting take on things you're not allowed to say, check this out: http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

safe surfing

So, an unspoken danger to non-business use of one's work Internet connection: you can be mocked for your history file. I was looking for a specific video on YouTube to show some people in our office, and I tried to find it by flipping through my history file. And I kept pulling up Firefly fan videos. Yeah, I'm a big ol' geek.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A bit o' gloomy: missing Sky

Sky in her kitten days

The neighborhood dogs killed one of our outside cats yesterday. Sky was about a year and a half old; her sister Emmett is one of our inside cats. We named her Sky because when she was a kitten her black-and-white fur looked like clouds at night. She was one of my favorite outside cats. When I sit outside and write, she used to hop up and sit on my knees right behind the laptop monitor and lie down for a nap. She'd poke her head over or around the screen every so often to make sure I wasn't ignoring her. I'll miss her.

I wouldn't have buried her in the yard, because I value city ordinances much more than my wife's wishes. :-) But if I did, I would've planted peonies over the site. They'll bloom in the Spring, and I'm looking forward to seeing them.

In addition to other neighborhood problems, we've got a pack of wild dogs living in Brookside Park at the end of our street. The two who killed Sky weren't the park dogs, though they do run with the pack most nights; we've got a neighbor across the alley whose dogs routinely leap his fence and get into our yard. We (and other neighbors) keep calling animal control about the feral pack and the neighbor's dogs, but they really don't care. The last time I called, I told them that I didn't really expect they'd do anything; mostly, when the dogs attacked someone's child I wanted to be able to tell the news crews how many times we called animal control to no avail.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Date!

Laura and I both had the morning off, so we went on a date! We went downtown for breakfast then spent a while wandering around downtown. We did some shopping, ate ice cream, and spent a wonderful morning and afternoon with each other. We don't often get a chance to go on dates, so I'm glad we made the time.

She just left for work, so I'm buckling down to write for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Wish me luck!

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Bear Box

I explained the concept of bear canisters and bear boxes to my coworkers before I left for my backpacking trip. So right before I left, they gave me a bear box:


I took this picture with me and showed it to the park rangers, every one of whom thought it was the funniest thing ever. Thanks, Michele and company! You're definitely the happy kind of crazy. :-)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

I solder

I'm in the middle of an install at work. I bought a bunch of cool LED lighting fixtures to light the structure of the Artsgarden, and they're all hung. Now I've just got to wire them. Power shouldn't be a problem, but for the data and fixture wiring I needed to run 3000' of wire and make something like 620 solder connections. Again, most of the wire is in place, and I just need to make a blue million solder joints. I'm not bad at it, but I'm also not fast at it. So I've got job security for the next few weeks. After that, if the lighting doesn't look good, I'll have a lot less job security. :-) But I'm not worried; there's no way that this much lighting won't look spectacular.

We finally stopped Chaka from peeing on the kitchen floor every night. Our previous efforts included moving a litter box up from the basement to the place she was peeing nightly, scolding her while rubbing her nose in the pee, letting her outside, and paying extra attention to her throughout the day. And, in my case, threatening in a sweet voice to turn her into kitty mittens if she peed on the floor again. None of the above worked, so we went with the blatantly obvious: we locked her in the laundry room in the basement last night when we went to bed. She actually used the litter box, so we let her out. We'll probably keep her down there for a few nights. I think locking up the cat isn't a bad temporary compromise, but we really need to fix the actual problem (whatever it is) before we're gone for the weekend next month. Cleaning up pee every morning is a bit much to ask of a cat-sitter. Or, worst-case, we can board Chaka while we're gone.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Cat trouble

Last week one of my bigger concerns was bears. This week it's our oldest cat, Chaka. She's taken to pretending that the kitchen is her litter box. Every morning we wake to a puddle o' pee on the hardwood floor, and I'm getting tired of cleaning it up. We've tried a few things, but nothing seems to make a difference. If it were any of the other cats, we would've turned them into outdoor cats on day two. Chaka's a little different; she's Laura's first and favorite cat, and Laura really doesn't want to put her outside. Plus, she's got no front claws and all the street smarts of a cloistered nun. So we're trying different things to see if we can calm her down.

We think the problem is that she's stressed. Personally, I'm amazed that anyone as well cared for as Chaka can even have stress in her life. But the other cats bother her, especially Emmett and Jayne. See, they want to play, and she just wants to hiss at them whenever they're near her. We've had Jayne for a year now, but Chaka hasn't gotten used to him. She apparently hit the snapping point shortly before I left for King's Canyon. For tonight, we're locking her in the laundry room in the basement. All the comforts of home: food, water, litter box (heh), and an easily-cleaned concrete floor.

Chaka pees in the same place (almost) every night, and it generally sits for a while before we get up in the morning and clean. So I'm going to have to replace a chunk of the hardwood flooring in the kitchen when we finally solve the problem. No point doing it until then, of course. But we've got design options. It'll be almost impossible to match the old flooring with new flooring, so I think we'll end up doing something clever and creative; maybe a different type of wood in front of the door, or maybe a tile entryway. It's ten square feet, so we could even get something expensive without spending a fortune. New flooring -- I think I'm the silver lining guy.

Monday, August 14, 2006

And, I'm back!

I got back to Indy early Sunday morning. It was great to see Laura at the airport! I missed her much, and coming back to her was truly a homecoming. I'm glad we didn't stay an extra day at King's Canyon; I liked having a day to decompress before going back to work.

Laura and I went to the Irvington farmer's market Sunday and ran into an impressive number of people we knew. We're really feeling like part of the community. We also got to do a bit of planning for the annual Festival of Lanterns in Spades Park. The festival is Saturday the 26th, and involves the usual assortment of bands (Jennie DeVoe and Blaq Lily, amongst others) and food and kid-oriented activity, plus a gazillion paper lanterns. Laura and I are doing the lighting, which I think means that she figures out where to put lights for maximum effect and I run lots of cable. We're a good team.

Other than that, my day involved a lot of being with Laura and a lot of resting. I took my old Palm Pilot and keyboard on the hiking adventure, and I'll be posting my trip journal here shortly.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Not hiking: Saturday

Today was all about the airport. We got up, splashed around in the hotel pool, packed, and dropped our baggage at the airport almost five hours before our flight. We hit a local IHOP for breakfast and enjoyed actual food (inasmuch as anything at I-HOP qualifies as actual food) once more, then headed back to the airport to wait. We've had airport trauma on this trip already, so we arrived three hours before our flight. But this is Fresno, so my total time thru security, from the time I decided to go through the checkpoint until I was on the other side, was under two minutes.

From what I can tell, the new security restrictions are another set of regulations designed to make people feel like the government is taking charge, without actually making anyone any safer. At the risk of giving anyone in the government bad ideas, drug mules manage to successfully cram thousands of pounds of narcotics into their various orifices every year with a very slim chance of detection. There's no reason terrorists can't just swallow a bomb. I hope nobody official is actually worried by swallowed explosives; I really don't relish a cavity search in the security line at the airport.

But the flights went well, and we had only slight delays. The three-hour time change meant that we left Fresno around 4pm and got back to Indy around 1am. But we're tired from hiking, so it felt like 1am to us as well.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Hiking: Friday

Today we finished. We got up a little after sunrise, played with gear, and packed up. On the drive out, we stopped at the General Grant tree in Sequoia National Park, which is a half-mile hike through giant redwoods. How big are they? Some Californians cut a tree down and sent a section of it, in pieces that fit a rail car, to the World's Fair some time in the late 1800's. The fair refused to exhibit it; it was so big, they assumed it had to be a hoax. They were impressively wide.

What they weren't was tall. They seemed to hit their peak (admittedly enormous) height, then stop growing up and keep growing thicker. For the diameter of their bases, they really should've been two or three times their height. If you could get over the fact that their absolute height was around thirty stories, their proportional height wasn't as tall as it looked like it should've been. But yeah--the scope and scale was amazing.

We stopped at the park visitor's center for lunch. Carl wanted to buy a paper; Neil said he didn't want to spend lunch looking at the back of Carl's paper, but then we saw the headline: "Terror Plot Foiled". We decided we should buy a paper and see what we're in for at the airport tomorrow. The usual, it turns out: ridiculous paranoia-driven security procedures, long lines, travel delays. We'll see how much it actually affects us tomorrow.

We heard a few stories about injured hikers on the trip, and we were trading them with the rangers this morning when we left. One was almost funny: a hiker broke his leg, so he was waiting on the trail for the rangers to bring him a new leg. That's the perk of having a prosthetic: a broken leg isn't painful, just inconvenient. We also heard about a member of a climbing club taking a bad fall, and we don't know the story on whoever we saw get airlifted out by helicopter Wednesday. None of the injuries were us, though, if you don't count blisters and a mild sprain.

I missed Laura a lot on this trip. I spent ten minutes on the drive to Fresno watching the service meter on my phone, waiting until I was close enough to a cell tower to call Laura. As soon as I had three bars, I hit the speed dial. It was wonderful to hear her voice after a week away. We've been apart longer, but we've never really been out of contact before. I thought about her a lot; I'm used to sharing everything with her, and it felt strange, to see or experience something special and not be able to share it with her. Hearing her voice for the first time in a week felt settling and reassuring. I think it's an affliction of my generation and those younger. People raised in the pre-cellular era aren't used to constant communication. I don't know that always being in touch is better, but once you're used to it it's hard to go stone-age again.

We got to the Holiday Inn next to the airport mid-afternoon. Carl had a reservation; he called one in on the drive. But just for experiment's sake, I went in first and asked if they had any rooms available. I was six days from my last shower, wearing a dirty white tank top and hiking boots, and the desk staff told me they had no rooms available. Carl came in and checked us in, and while we were doing paperwork an older couple came to the desk to see if rooms were available. Of course, for them they had a wide variety of rooms to choose from. I'm not surprised at all; refusing rooms to exceedingly scruffy people is what separates a decent hotel from a hotel that rents by the hour. The other funny hotel moment was when Carl called in for the reservation. The first room rate they quoted him for triple occupancy was $264. He mentioned that that seemed a little pricey. They said they could give us the same room without breakfast for $114. That works out to $50 per breakfast. I think it's their subtle way of charging extra for corporate bookings.

Carl took Neil and me out for a nice dinner for my birthday at Romano's Macaroni Grill. It was a nice dinner even on its own merits, especially so when compared to camp food. Carl of course told the waitress that it was my birthday, because Macaroni's has a singer who'll sing to you at your table. She had already left by the time we were done eating, so our server sang instead; it was very cute. Thanks for dinner, Carl!

I was surprised to see a Mimi's restaurant next to Macaroni's. Mimi's is one of my most fondly remembered restaurants; it's where I had breakfast (a bowl of oatmeal and a tuna steak) every morning, every time I went to Los Angeles, and I didn't realize it was a chain until last night. It's almost disappointing to figure out that there wasn't some gal named Mimi in the back cooking my tuna steak.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Hiking: Thursday

Today was a long day. We got up earlier than our usual, and started our freezing-cold morning with hot orange Gatorade. It reminded me of my old college-days favorite, hot spiced Tang. Yum! It almost made up for the Spicy Thai Satay instant meal we had for breakfast, which was pretty unpalatable.

Our day began with a steep uphill climb to the pass. It was amazing; from the top you could see mountain peaks stretching for miles in every direction, and the air was really clear. And cold; it was below freezing at the peak, and there was a 40 mph cross wind coming over the pass. And, because nature knows no boundaries, there was marmot poop on the highest point of the pass.

The original plan was to finish the strenuous hike to the Pass, then hike a few more easy downhill miles to a campground. After the hike up and down the pass, though, we were pretty energized. And the hike up wasn't that bad; we planned to spend yesterday as an extra day above 10,000 feet to help us get acclimated to the altitude, and it worked. We didn't have much trouble at all clearing the pass at 12,000 feet. We bypassed our intended campsite and made it all the way to Road's End, which made today roughly a 22-mile day.The last four miles down to Road's End are all downhill, and the first two are really downhill, all steep switchbacks. So we decided to make time by running down the switchbacks. We made great time, but running on trails is hard work; we still had full packs, and it follwed sixteen miles of fast hiking. But we heard from some other hikers who saw us that we looked really cool and hardcore and maybe a little crazy. Which is okay.

Being geeks, we did have two Lord of the Rings moments today. Right before we started our insane trail run, Carl yelled out, "Let's hunt some orcs!" in a very Gimli voice. If you don't think that's funny, you're not a Lord of the Rings geek. The other LOTR moment was earlier in the day. We noticed that we were hiking toward a mountain that looked suspiciously like Mount Doom. I was the member of the party with a gold ring dangling from a cord around my neck, so we knew who I was; we agreed that Neil was probably Gollum.

One of the nice things about serious backpacking is the company you meet. People at the grocery store are total strangers; people you meet on trails a two-day walk from civilization are much less so. Whoever else you may be, you know that you have a lot in common. You're both members of a club, of sorts, so there's a bond. It's not friendship, more instant camaraderie. So people you meet in the backcountry are generally friendly. There's even a form a lot of the conversations take when you meet someone going the opposite direction. It goes something like: Hey, Hey, where you headed, direction/location, advice, how about you, direction/location, advice, thanks, bye. It's civil and friendly, and it's very much like you're on the same team. Not that all hikers are alike; there are a lot of styles, from the gung-ho hardcores to the moseying day hikers. We met people who are doing the same hike we are in four days, and people who are doing it in eight. We also met a group who were through-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and were taking a four-day detour just to resupply.

A side note: mosquitoes are evil. The last two miles of the hike was through a solid cloud of mosquitoes, and it wasn't fun. I think the little bastards are an object lesson in politics; I'll let you ponder the myriad of ways in which the metaphor applies.

We finished the day's hike after dark, so we headed up the road to a campground in the park. It wasn't a wilderness camp; it was more like a state park campground, each site complete with metal fire ring, picnic bench, parking spot, and bear box, plus available running water and toilets. Practically the lap of luxury. And, we stopped for dinner at the lodge near the trail head. It was objectively some of the worst food I've ever gotten in a restaurant, but after five days of Clif Bars and instant no-cook rehydratable meals it seemed pretty good.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Hiking: Wednesday

Today was fun. We woke up early and watched the sun rise into our valley. We could see it hit the peaks across the lake, then the peak of the mountain above us. After almost an hour, it worked its way down to our campsite. When it hit us, it hit fast; we took a picture of the sun rising, and we had to run fast to get a second shot further down the valley.

We were planning on taking a hike up to the Sixty Lakes Basin, but we only made it halfway before we got distracted and took off on a side hike. We ended up working our way up to the crest above the basin to the top of the ridge above the crater lake, then down the other side, around more lakes, finally connecting with the John Muir Trail not far from the Pass. It was close to a six-hour hike, over some pretty rough terrain. We took lots of pictures, at least some of which should be highly scenic.

And, our oddity for the day: we saw a rescue helicopter land at the Sixty Lakes campground. It was a shocking shift of perspective. We thought we had a pretty good sense of distance, but we saw the helicopter fly behind a distant mountain, then fly in front of another mountain that we thought was equally distant. We had to check the topographical map to figure out the second mountain was almost a mile further from us.We kept having similar perspective problems on the scramble up the loose rock to the ridge, too. We'd set a landmark to reach, and we would find gorges and ridges we couldn't see from a distance blocking our path. Some of the scrambling was a little dangerous; there were places where a fall would've been pretty traumatic (by which I mean, possibly fatal). But I behaved myself and didn't do any actual rock climbing. Partially, I don't have the gear with me; free climbing without gear, particularly when I'm not really in shape for it, is asking for trouble. And partially I wouldn't want to do anything too dangerous, because I wouldn't want to explain it to Laura from my hospital bed. :-)

We're discussing how to handle the last two days of the hike: how much ground to try to cover tomorrow, and how much to leave for Friday. Tomorrow morning starts with a steep 2.5-mile hike up and over the pass, and from there it's 20 miles to the trail head. The consensus is to do as much tomorrow as possible, so we can get to showers and decent food sooner on Friday. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who's completely over camp food and looking forward to actual cleanliness. The best you can really do here is dunking your feet in a stream or jumping into a freezing cold mossy lake. You can't use soap in the water; it's bad for the ecosystem. This might be oversharing, but as of today I'm a day past my previous record for longest time between showers.

We're camped just a few yards from a stream; it's nature's white noise generator. It probably makes it easier to sleep. It's balanced by the fact that we pitched our tent on a big, flat rock covered with little rocks, and that none of us really has a sleeping bag good for the low nighttime temperatures. It's got to be close to freezing at night, and a sleeping bag that's labelled "35 degrees" apparently works under the assumption that you're wearing a down parka to bed.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Hiking: Tuesday

King's Canyon is gorgeous! I'm noticing that as we gain altitude, we're seeing different trees and plants. Even a thousand feet of elevation makes a pretty significant difference in the flora around us. And we saw marmots today, near where we ended up camping. Our campsite is apparently in the heart of marmot country, to judge by the impressive scattering of marmot poop. We're camped on a flat boulder just above Rae Lakes, not far from a small stream. I think the stream will act as nature's white noise machine while we sleep. I'm really enjoying the water here, too; the trails tend to follow streams and creeks, so we're never far from it.

We've been going pretty high today; we crossed the 10,000 feet mark around lunchtime. Altitude makes everything harder. I'm averaging just more than fifty vertical feet between rest breaks. Some of them are short breaks, but still, nothing makes me feel out of shape like gasping for breath on a relatively shallow incline. I popped something in my knee around noon. I spent a moment looking at scenery when I should've been walking, and I stepped on a loose rock. I had to stop and strap it up with an ace bandage; I hope it doesn't continue to give me trouble.

I'm missing Laura a lot on this trip. A lot more than I expected to, really. We've spent longer than a week apart, but this is different; we're totally out of communication here. I keep seeing pretty scenery or flowers that look like what's in our garden, or I'll just be thinking of her, and I have no way to talk to her and tell her.

One of the mildly trying things about backcountry hiking is the utter lack of toilet facilities. When you need to expel solid matter, you need to dig a hole, squat indiscreetly over it, and do your business, then fill in the hole. And, you have to pack out your used toilet paper. Pardon me while I make ick-ing, thwa-ing noises. Indoor plumbing: a good idea! But, there's a balance. When you're eating hiking food, you don't get a lot of extra bulk. I read a label the other day that had two unaccounted-for grams per serving. You'd have to eat a hundred pounds of that to make a decent bowel movement. Though even this has its dark side: hiking food more than makes up for its lack of solid waste with its substantial quantity of gaseous waste.

Update on the food: we got sick this afternoon after lunch. We think it was the Adventure Foods pasta salad. Carl and I were the ones who ate most of it, so we suffered most of the effects. It only lasted half an hour or so, but it was an impressive amount of suck in a very short time.

And, a bit on bear canisters. The theory is that you need to put all of your food, plus anything that smells ( deodorant, toothpaste, sunscreen, bug spray, trash, et cetera) in the canisters so bears won't be able to get at them. They finally decided that you can't seal your food well enough to keep bears from smelling it, and you can't hide or hang your food anywhere bears can't get to it. So you put it in the canister. The bears can smell your food but they can't eat any, so you're not teaching the bears that campsites are a food source. We got the largest available canisters, and we're each carrying one. Tonight was the first time we could actually fit all of our food and smellables in the canisters. We're travelling with a lot of food. The first night the campside came equipped with bear boxes, which are essentially small steel dumpsters that are tricky to open without opposable thumbs. We put our excess food in the boxes the first night, and last night we stuffed and crammed until everything fit. When we woke up this morning, we had fresh bear tracks fifteen feet from the campsite, but the bear didn't touch the bear canisters. I think the reason is that all of our food is either prepackaged and sealed, or in ziplock bags; even in the canisters, bears aren't smelling it.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Hiking: Monday

The trip started with some trauma. Saturday we flew from Indy to Phoenix, to Vegas, to Fresno. When we went to the bagage claim, only my bag was there. Neil asked the airline rep where his bag was, and found they had pulled it aside for some random reason that they of course couldn't tell us about. It was waiting in a pile behind the counter. Carl's was a different story. One of our connecting flights was overweight (apparently for security reasons they aren't even allowed to tell us which flight), so they pulled his bag off the plane. We're on a tight schedule; they said they could possibly have the bag in fresno by 9 Saturday night, but it wouldn't really do us any good; we had to be at a campground three hours away by then. After talking to several airline personnel and explaining our situation in small words, The airline agreed to replace Carl's pack. We spent two hours at Herb Bauer's outdoor store and completely replaced all of Carl's gear (total bill was around $1700). We decided to drive to the park that night (option B was to stay in Fresno in a Holiday Inn and drive to the park at 4am). We made it to the park, managed to find the only open campsite, and crashed for the night. The next morning, we got up at 6 and made our way to the ranger station, where we picked up bear canisters, got our permit, and started the hike.

I noticed myself getting an odd kind of nervous as we got further away from the car. The more we walk, the farther we get from everything. We're not hiking toward anything, we're just hiking. And the more we hike, the further we get from everything. Being out of touch is a special kind of twenty-first century anxiety. I have no idea what's happening at home, or with my family, or in my neighborhood, or at work. I could be missing a major catastrophe and I won't know it until Sunday or Monday. I hope all's well; it's bothering me being out of touch, and it's only been half a day since we left cell-phone range.

Sunday turned out to be a good day of hiking -- that is, we got where we were going, and had fun along the way. I enjoy talking with Carl and Neil. We stopped for lunch at Mist Falls, which was a rockface fall maybe 50 or 60 feet tall. It crashed enough that it sprayed mist for 200' downstream. We met several groups of day hikers at the falls, most of whom were pretty unprepared for the hike. For a six-mile round trip, one family of six brought 20 ounces of water between them. Carl filtered stream water for several groups, including them. We're hiking sort-of with a few other parties. A group of boy scouts (7 scouts, 4 adults) started the same morning we did, and a few solo hikers and pairs are following our path. We'll lose most of them Wednesday; we're spending two days at Rae Lakes, but most groups are only spending one. We keep passing each other on trails and at campsites.

I'm noticing that I really don't like hiking food. If it were up to me, I'd probably survive the week on Clif Bars alone. The freeze-dried no-cook entrees are decent, for freeze-dried no-cook entrees, but are far below the taste or quality of anything you'd get at a bad restaurant. Oddly, it's also pretty far below the instant pasta side dishes at the grocery store. And we're carrying an enormous quantity of food; Carl figures we'll have as many as five entrees left at the end of the trip. I'm banking on eleven. That's not only expensive, it's a lot of extra mass and volume to schlep around. We're at the end of the second day, and we've still got three of the biggest bear canisters available crammed full. I'll be surprised if we don't have an entire box full at the end of the trip.

I'm having altitude issues. One of the symptoms of altitude sickness is abnormal fatigue. And I've definitely got that. I'm barely making 200 yards between rest stops on some of the moderately steep trails (which are a lot like steep stairs). Today during some of the steeper parts of the hike I was as miserable as I've ever been. At one point was getting so little air that my vision was tunneling, and I could barely walk. I can push myself pretty hard--I can literally walk until I pass out. But it's bad that I have to. It's not that my legs are tired (though I'll admit that my back is pretty achey); it's that I can't breathe. I think a lot of it is the asthma. A lot of the tricks people use to breathe well at altitude, I'm already using to breathe at sea level. Today my worst trouble was at 7500 feet; I'm nervous about how I'll do at 12,000 feet. Which will be Wednesday, wish me luck.

I've spent some time thinking about why people hike. And, specifically, about why I'm hiking. In a lot of ways, a few days alone at a bed and breakfast would be much preferable to slogging through the mountains. The short list of problems with hiking would have to include the fact that the food is awful, it's an uncomfortable way to sleep, it's amazingly hard work, you have to sink a lot of time into mundane tasks (we're probably spending over half an hour every day just filtering water), and mosquitoes are clearly a sign that evil exists. And, the biggie, you miss a lot of the nature. Today I walked fifteen feet from a baby deer, and I didn't even know it until I had already hiked past and stopped to look around. The terrain is rough, so you need to spend almost all your time looking at the ten square feet of rocky ground directly in front of you. Part of that is that I've got no peripheral vision with my glasses, but even hikers with perfect eyesight get sprained ankles if they don't look down a lot. On the plus side, you're truly away from the world for a few days, you get to see nature, you can push yourself and test your physical limits, and you get to experience actual quiet for a change. It's a very elemental way to spend time, with none of the extraneous crap that normally infests modern life.

As for why I'm hiking, I don't have a great answer. Carl asked me to join him and Neil on their annual Graf Brothers Hike, and I said yes without really much thought or discussion. It's something I haven't done for a long time, and I've never done this strenuous or long of a trip before. I think part of it might be my impending birthday. I can't really complain about birthdays; Laura's eight years older than I am, and I have no problem with that. For the next four days I'm the same age she was when we started dating. But this birthday is looming in ways that most of my birthdays haven't. Partially, 35 is a milestone. I feel like I should be grown up by now, like I should've figured out what I want to do with my life. And I have: I want to write. But I'm not very good at it at the moment, and I'm not seeing a lot of improvement in the ways I'd like. When you're young you imagine a life course for yourself, a plan of what you want to do when you grow up (I think one of the reasons people go to high school reunions is to check on the comparative progress of their classmates' life paths). It's a rough plan, of course; I don't think anyone would be happy living a life planned out by an ignorant high-school student. But a major birthday (which I'll call any number divisible by 5) is an instinctual time to look at where you are, compared to where you'd like to be. I'm really happy with my life in general. I adore Laura, and I like the life we share. But I've still got areas of my life I'm less happy with. Some of my personal internal drama is over my career; I really don't see myself doing what I'm doing when I'm 50. Closely related to career, the rest of my angst concerns writing. I really saw myself at 35 writing better, writing more, and maybe even being published by now. All I can do is keep writing, keep reading, and keep working at it.

But, back to the hike. I think the biggest reason I'm here is to prove to myself that I'm still young and fit, that I can still rough it and stretch my comfort zone. And to do different, interesting things. I like my life, but it's been a while since I've done anything epic -- anything significantly broader than my usual day-to-day, anything that generates good stories. So this will be my week-long leap outside of my normal life. I'm curious to see what hops back into the box with me.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

New dance thing

And now, a quick plug for some cool art. The show I worked last week was the final performance for a summer dance workshop at Butler University. One of the dance pieces was a ballet set to Korn's "Coming Undone". It was a very cool piece, awfully dark and creepy and sexy for a ballet. The guest choreographer hails from a heavy-metal ballet company in New York (where else?) called Ballet Deviare. I like the concept, and I'd be interested in seeing a non-student performance. If you ever get a chance to catch them performing in New York or on tour, check them out.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Another sign of aging

I was just noticing that it takes me a lot longer to recover from not getting enough sleep. When I was 22, I ended a tour by not sleeping for a week. I woke up Sunday morning, and between then and Friday night I slept a total of six hours. Friday night I slept for twelve hours, and the next day I was fine. This past weekend I had a few late nights and early mornings, and I'm still feeling the effects.

The latest night was Saturday, the night of the annual Geezer Party. Laura and two friends have birthdays within a few weeks of each other, so every Summer we host a combined birthday party for the three of them. It was a good party. We have interesting friends that I don't see often enough, so I really enjoy a chance to spend some time talking with everyone. I kept sneaking away from the party to pack my backpack for Sunday's practice hike, but I don't think anyone noticed I wasn't around. That's another perk of a big party: anyone can pretty easily disappear for a while without anyone noticing.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Practice hike

Carl, Neil, and I went for a practice hike on Sunday in McCormick's Creek State Park. We divided up the big stuff, like the tent and the cooking gear and the water filter, then packed an enormous quantity of food into our packs and took off for a couple miles. The food should be decent; it consists mostly of no-cook hiking entrees. In addition to being pretty tasty in general (for instant food), they're amazingly easy to prepare. All you do is open the bag, dump in some boiling water, seal the bag, and let it sit for ten minutes. We got mostly vegetarian food, and unfortunately some of it is Pretty Darn Spicy. A lot of it is Thai, Indian, and Cajun. For our test meal, we ate something called "Cajun Salmon Volcano" or something like that. I couldn't tell you anything in it, except for rice and lots of cayenne pepper. That's why I'm generally opposed to unnecessarily spicy food. I can't tell what I'm eating. True story: years ago, I ordered an extremely hot Szechuan pork dish at a Chinese restaurant. When I was about halfway done eating, the waiter came to our table to apologize because they had accidentally given me chicken instead of pork. And I hadn't noticed. All I could really taste was the heat. But, yeah -- I'm looking forward to the hike, spicy food and all. I think Carl and Neil and I will get along great, and I think we're pretty compatible hiking partners.

And, more trivia. Apparently the TSA guys confiscate a lot of camp stoves. Even though camp stoves are on the approved list, they can apparently still take it if they think it smells like there might possibly be gas in it (even though the stoves all use detachable fuel bottles). An outfitter in Fresno says he sells a lot of stoves to people who had theirs confiscated on a plane. It makes me wonder if individual TSA employees have some sort of E-Bay store system wherein they sell stuff they've confiscated.